Monday, December 29, 2008

A Problem with the Cosmological Argument

One common argument that apologists use to justify belief in God is called the cosmological argument, one form of which runs as follows:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe must have a cause.

Apologists argue, naturally, that the cause of the universe can't be a part of the universe itself; therefore, only God can cause a universe to begin. Since we know the universe exists, therefore we know God exists.

However, this argument fails on several levels, but the biggest failure in my view is that it conflates the components of the universe with the universe itself. While it can be argued that every 'thing' in the universe, every component--from human beings to stars to galaxy clusters--were caused to exist, it does not follow that the universe itself must also share the same characteristic--namely, being caused to exist.

The universe is not a 'thing' in the same manner that an apple or a planetary nebula can be called a thing. The universe is the sum of all things in space and time. The difference between the universe and the components of the universe is a difference of kind, not one of degree. Here's an example to highlight the difference:

1. All novels are written by an author.
2. The category of Literature is composed of novels.

According to the apologists' argument, we must therefore conclude that:

3. Literature was written by an author.

But that wouldn't make sense. What's the author of Literature's name? When did the author write Literature? All novels share other characteristics, such as a publishing date, and a first word, and a last word. So what is Literature's publishing date? What is Literature's first word, or last word? Of course, these are meaningless questions that can't be answered, because Literature is not just one giant novel; it is a different class altogether. For the same reason, the Universe is not just one giant thing that must share the characteristics of the components of itself.

What's more, if, as the apologists assert, the universe must have a cause just like everything else does, then the universe should also share other characteristics with everything else. One characteristic that all components of the universe exhibit is that they inhabit a place in space and time. Here's how that would work, according to the apologist:

1. Every thing inhabits a place in space and time.
2. The universe is a thing.
3. Therefore, the universe inhabits a place in space and time.

While at first glance this might seem to be logically sound, in reality it fails. If your definition of 'universe' is 'something that inhabits a place in space and time,' then your definition of 'universe' is not big enough. The universe can't be everything if that everything also inhabits space and time. The universe would have to also include that additional space and time as well in order for us to declare it to be everything.

The classic response to the cosmological argument is that if everything has a creator, then who created God? One objection that apologists raise is that God is exempt from the necessity for a creator because God is outside of space and time. Of course, apologists provide no evidence for this claim--nor could they--except for the fact that it solves a logical problem--but its a problem of their own making. Whenever someone declares that God is exempt from argument because he's outside time, I have two questions for him:

1. What time did God create the universe?
2. Where in the world did he put it?

If the apologist has an answer for these questions, then he's having God create space-time inside space-time, a logical contradiction. It's as though the universe sits inside a 'room' somewhere, but that room is not a part of the universe. If the apologist is not able to answer the two questions, then he is declaring that the universe is also outside of space and time.

So apologists are trapped either way. If they declare that the universe is not outside of space and time, then they aren't talking about the universe, but only a component of it--that portion that is inside of space and time. But if they concede that the universe is also outside of space and time, then the universe is as exempt from the same objections that they want God to be. "Who created the universe?" becomes as meaningless and unanswerable as "Who created God?"

In the end, the universe is what philosophers call a "Brute Fact," something that exists in and of its own right and does not require a beginning or a creator. Apologists can't object to this idea because they also believe in a Brute Fact. Naturalists call their Brute Fact, the Universe; Theists call theirs, God. However, the Naturalist can point to the Universe. Can the Theist point to God?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Freethought Quote for the Day

Like Confucius of old, I am absorbed in the wonder of earth, and the life upon it, and I cannot think of heaven and the angels. I have enough for this life. If there is no other life, than this one has been enough to make it worth being born, myself a human being. With so profound a faith in the human heart and its power to grow toward the light, I find here reason and cause enough for hope and confidence in the future of mankind.

--Pearl Buck, "Roll Away the Stone"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book Review - The Origin of Satan

Title: The Origin of Satan
Author: Elaine Pagels
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0679731184

Satan is a familiar character to Christians and non-Christians alike. He's the Prince of Darkness, a fallen angel doomed to walk the earth, the lord of a diabolical army dedicated to the overthrow of God's throne. Unfortunately, such images are largely the product of John Milton's Paradise Lost and have nothing to do with the Satan of the Bible.

In the Old Testament, Satan is a forbidding but ultimately obedient member of Jehovah's pantheon. He's no more evil than a prosecuting attorney. But by the New Testament era, Satan has become a convenient placeholder for Christians to identify their enemies--first Jews, then the pagan Romans, and finally heretics within the Christian faith itself.

Pagels began her research for this book assuming that the purpose of the doctrine of Satan was to spiritualize the natural universe and explain the persecution of a breakaway Jewish sect called Christianity. To her surprise, she learned that Satan evolved into an evil force reserved for one's most intimate enemies. Pagels carefully compares the four gospel accounts, identifying obvious trends to demonize Jews and exonerate the Romans for the death of Jesus--even to the point of absurdity.

For example, the gentle Pontius Pilate of the gospels has nothing to do with the brutal Pilate of history. Even sympathetic Roman historians portrayed Pilate from negative to bitterly hostile. Yet the gospel writers portray him as weak and compassionate in order to exonerate him and the Romans of the death of Jesus. Pagels quotes historian Paul Winters who writes: "...the stern Pilate grows more mellow from gospel to gospel . . . the more removed from history, the more sympathetic a character he becomes."

The opposite effect occurred with regard to the Jews, as each gospel (read chronologically) portrays the Jews acting more and more culpable for Jesus' death. This is exactly what we would expect as the growing Christian movement tried to distinguish itself from the Jewish religion from which it sprung.

Over time, Christians used a growing vocabulary to identify their list of enemies as "sons of hell" or "forces of darkness." But this was not confined to first-century Christians; Martin Luther in the sixteenth century denounced as "agents of Satan" all Christians who remained loyal Roman Catholics, all Jews who refused to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, all who challenged wealthy landowners in the Peasant's War, and even all Protestant Christians who were not specifically Lutheran.

Pagels has written a marvelous book here, stripping Satan of his unearthly power, and presenting "The Evil One" as the nameless, faceless force that lies behind one's own paranoia and persecutors.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Book Review - The Trouble With Christmas

Title: The Trouble With Christmas
Author: Tom Flynn
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 9780879758486

What could possibly be the trouble with Christmas? It's everyone's favorite holiday and practically every American celebrates it, right? Anyone who would complain against it must be a Scrooge!

As Tom Flynn explains, that attitude demonstrates the very problem--everyone in America--Christian, non-religious, or otherwise--is expected to participate in what's supposed to be a religious holiday, and anyone who criticizes it is considered a Scrooge.

Christian Americans are puzzled when non-Christians complain about Christmas. 'Why whine? We throw this great party, and they get to crash.' 'Crash isn't the word,' non-Christians retort. 'You don't even get invited to Christmas. You get drafted.'

In The Trouble With Christmas, Tom Flynn explores American society's most popular holiday. He looks at the overwhelming influence that Christmas has on our society and wonders out loud why it's forced on everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike.

For instance, how many of the familiar Christmas traditions like Christmas trees, caroling, and exchanging presents are of specific Christian origin? Next to none. All the elements we associate with Christmas are of pagan or entirely secular origin. Only one--midnight mass on Christmas Eve--appears to be strictly Christian, and primarily only Catholic at that.

Lots of people grudgingly accept the pagan influences of Christmas, but they continue the game because the traditions are so old and familiar--haven't we been celebrating Christmas for nearly two thousand years, all the way back to the birth of Jesus? Not so, explains Flynn. Christmas has had a tiny place in most of Christian history, nearly dwindling to nothingness during the Middle Ages. The holiday that so consumes almost a third of the commercial year was nearly killed off by Protestant fundamentalists--early American Puritans objected to Christmas so much that they banned it outright wherever they held the power.

But Christmas was revived during the nineteenth century by a mere six eminent Victorians--Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Clement C. Moore, Thomas Nast, and Francis Church. All six played a role in reviving Christmas into its familiar form, building in a false nostalgia to suggest long-held traditions.

Even more concerning to non-Christians like myself was the role that Charles Dickens played in turning culture against those who opted out of the holiday. The word "Scrooge" became an insult to anyone who didn't participate in Christmas, which kept the ball rolling into the commercial behemoth that the holiday is today.

Flynn's book, written in 1993, anticipated the War on Christmas by over a decade. He noted that as the United States becomes a more pluralistic society, more and more businesses are going to be reluctant to offend their non-Christian customers by, say, wishing them 'Merry Christmas.' Outspoken commentators like Bill O'Reilly get furious at that--the assumption seems to be that while he grudgingly admits that non-Christians are allowed to live in America, they should at least act like Christians as long as they are here. But the bluster will have less effect as more and more people ask themselves, 'Why should I be forced to acknowledge a religious holiday when I don't subscribe to that religion?'

Even secular humanists feel obligated to somehow participate in Christmas without accepting the religion it's loosely based on. Many freethinkers celebrate the Winter Solstice, for example, or, apparently unaware of the irony, co-opt pagan traditions such as Saturnalia as a way of avoiding celebrating a holiday that itself co-opted the same pagan traditions. Why, asks Flynn, do atheists buy and decorate a 'holiday tree' during December, when they don't lift a finger to co-celebrate Ramadan?

But even more important is the coming War on Christmas in public schools. Everywhere in America schools give Christmas off to all students, hold Christmas parties and plays, all under the assumption that every child is tacitly Christian. But of course, not every child comes from a Christian family, and the numbers of children of non-Christian parents will only continue to grow. Public schools are undergoing the same dilemma that state and local governments are facing when it comes to holiday displays on public property--either everyone should get their share, or no one should.

Today, Christianity is obviously favored in public schools, but what about children of Muslims? Should schools be closed for the entire month of Ramadan? What about the religious holidays of Buddhism, or Judaism, or Hindus? What holidays should children of non-theists receive? By the time all religions are afforded equality, school would be closed most of the year--an obvious impossible solution. The only alternative is for public schools to be exactly that--public, meaning secular, meaning no religious holidays are acknowledged. Religion can be taught in school, naturally, but making all kids in a fourth-grade class sing Christmas carols is nothing less than an endorsement of Christianity. If children of Christians are forced to perform make-up work from having missed a day of school so they could celebrate Christmas with their families, well, doesn't every religious leader argue that devotion to one's religion is supposed to be difficult?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dogs sniff out injustice

Both the New York Times and National Geographic reported that dogs have a primitive sense of envy. They describe an experiment on well-trained dogs to offer a paw on command. But when one dog was not given a reward for the obedience, the dog became less and less inclined to obey the command.

I have to agree with the blogger slacktivist, though, that this experiment doesn't seem to point to dogs feeling envy of other dogs receiving rewards. It sounds more like the dogs know a crooked deal when they see one. They've been trained to get a treat as a reward for the unnatural act of offering a paw on command. When the dog stops getting the promised treat, it decides that it doesn't need to obey anymore. If you don't hold up your end of the bargain, why should I bother?

The lead scientist, as reported in Science News, never used the word 'envy' in her description. She calls it what it is, an "aversion to inequity."

Slacktivist wonders why two media outlets would both report the findings as an example of envy, rather than the natural desire to avoid getting a raw deal--something only primates, humans included, have shown before. My interest in the issue is the idea that once again, we see a primitive sense of morality in non-human species. A dog will look at his neighbor getting a reward for the same work and conclude that it doesn't want to cooperate anymore, anymore than a man would work for a company if his coworkers were receiving twice the pay for the same work.

This notion undercuts the idea that there is a huge divide between humans and animals because we are specially created by God. We have souls, say the theologians, and animals do not. Because of those souls, they say, we can commmunicate with God, and we know the difference between right and wrong. And yet dogs, who presumably don't have souls, also have a primitive idea of right and wrong. If I've been trained to get a treat for shaking hands, then it's wrong for me not to get one when I obey the command, particularly if another dog does get the offered treat.

Of course, this does not mean that we evolved our sense of justice from dogs, since we evolved long before dogs ever did. What it shows is that social animals employ certain behaviors to better survive--a sense of fair play one of them. And since we evolved our physical characteristics like opposable thumbs from our primate ancestors, there's evidence that we evolved our sense of morality and proper behavior from them as well.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Baby Beat to Death to Drive Out Demons

In a heartbreaking and deeply disturbing report, a young couple was arrested Wednesday in East Texas of beating (and biting!) the woman's thirteen-month-old daughter to get rid of her demons.

Amora Bain Carson was found beaten to death, believed to be with a hammer, and bitten more than 20 times. The child's parents, Blaine Milam and Jessica Carson, first gave conflicting reports about the child's death to authorities, then finally confessed that they believed the child was possessed by demons, forcing them to violently abuse their daughter to get rid of them.

What can possibly be said in defense of these two people? Superstitious thinking drove them to commit infanticide, and an innocent child's life was brutally snuffed because two people took their religious teaching seriously. This is even worse than cases like Andrea Yates and Deanna Laney, two strongly religious women who also murdered their own children, because both of them acted alone. In both cases, the women were found by juries to be not guilty by reason of insanity. But will a jury rule the same for Milam and Carson, that they both just happened to be insane and simultaneously cooperated in murdering their child?

Let the record show that superstitious thinking can drive people to kill an innocent baby.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Celestial Being smiling down on humanity

Often in the news, people are proud to show off images of Jesus, Mary, and other religious figures magically appearing in mundane articles. These manifestations are always described as miracles and are accompanied by dire warnings against humanities' ills and sinful behaviors.

On the other hand, sometimes God appears to be smiling down on us, as demonstrated by Mike Salway, Australian amateur astronomer and photographer. Salway recently snapped a photo that at first glance appears to be two planets and the Earth's moon in a rare celestial alignment, but when viewed with the right perspective, shows a smiley face in the sky:

Salway said the pictures made him "very happy" although I believe his language isn't strong enough. A case could be made that this happy face in the sky is God's way of letting us know that he is pleased with humanity. As time goes by, we are slowly but steadily eliminating superstition and faith-based reasoning, instead choosing to live our lives based on reality. God wants us to continue our progress, using our God-given brains to cure the ills of our world.

Either that, or it's just another case of pareidolia.

Societies with "God on their side" are worse off

Most religious believers argue not only does belief in God makes themselves into better persons, but that a widespread belief in God also improves society as a whole. They argue that a community favorable toward religious belief has an inoculating effect on the non-religious community in general.

More and more this appears to be an unsupported assertion, and in fact, the opposite appears to be true. According to Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent of the Times Online, "Societies are worse off 'when they have God on their side.'" From the article:
"RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society..."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Freethought Quote of the Day

"When human beings understand little about the workings of their world, myth-making comes naturally. It is easy, and somehow reassuring, to imagine that the vast forces of thunder, rain, snow, and life itself are under someone's control. So much the better if the "someone" or "something" are powerful cosmic personages. Better still if they have personalities and emotional responses not unlike our own. Primitive peoples could make such imaginative leaps at the drop of a hat. We moderns are scarcely superior."

Tom Flynn, The Trouble With Christmas, Prometheus Books, 1993, p. 45.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Freethought Quote for the Day

"The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall."

--Thomas Paine, Age of Reason

The Case for an Incompetent Architect

Some theists tell me that part of the reason we suffer here on earth is because God granted us free will. However, they also claim that in Heaven there will be no suffering. From this we can logically conclude that believers in Heaven will have no free will.

Some theists find themselves in a no-win situation. If they argue that free will is a necessary condition of our world--even if that leads to pointless suffering--then they must choose one of two situations. First, citizens of Heaven do not have free will. If free will leads to sin, and sin leads to suffering, and there is no suffering in Heaven, then working backwards we must conclude that there is no sin in Heaven, therefore there is no free will. In other words, if free will and sin and suffering are inextricably linked here on Earth, then they must be inextricably linked in Heaven as well. The three are a package deal; you can't have one (free will) without the other two (sin and suffering).

However, if the citizens of Heaven do not have free will, then this turns them into robots. Isn't this the very condition on Earth that theists argue that God does not want, making the granting of our free will absolutely necessary?

The second situation of which theists must choose if free will is a necessary condition of our world is that citizens in Heaven will have free will--and that sin and suffering will shortly follow, making Heaven into just another Earth with all its attending evils and sorrow. After all, that's the situation described in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden. God created a world for sinless beings who had free will--and they shortly exercised their free will to sin, thus ushering in suffering. This was two people in less than one generation. How likely is it that millions of people in heaven will always freely choose to do good and never choose evil?

But of course, if Heaven will be just another Earth, then there is no reason to worship God as an omnibenevolent being. If God cannot create a world without suffering, then God is not omnipotent.

Suppose an architect built a house for you, and he stated that he can't build the house without using, say, asbestos in the walls and ceilings. Now suppose the asbestos causes severe respiratory problems, inducing a lifetime of pain and suffering. What would be your response if the architect then tried to sell you a timeshare of a luxury resort he's constructing, soon to be open? Your first question would probably be, "Will it have asbestos in the walls and ceilings?" If the architect answers yes, then the timeshare resort will cause just as much pain and illness as the house he just built for you--perhaps more. If the architect answers no to the asbestos question, then the natural follow-up would be, "If you can build a resort without asbestos, then why didn't you build my house without it?" Either way, you are dealing with an incompetent architect, and he should be rejected at once.

Some theists try to rescue the concept by placing the blame of human suffering on Satan. After all, if the serpent hadn't convinced Adam and Eve to sin, then perhaps we would have been spared this earthly misery. However, this only changes the problem--it doesn't answer it. The believer still has the same two dead-end choices. If Satan will be a necessary part of Heaven, then he will tempt believers to sin against God, and Heaven will turn into another sinful, suffering-filled Earth. On the other hand, if we can live in Heaven without the negative influence of Satan, then why didn't God prevent Satan from inhabiting Earth? Either way, God apparently doesn't know what he's doing.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is Belief in God Essential for Moral Virtue?

Paul Kurtz, Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry Magazine and Chairman of the Center for Inquiry has been published in "On Faith" a special Web feature of the Washington Post. Kurt's piece is titled, "Is Belief in God Essential for Moral Virtue?" and is an affirmation of secular humanist ethics.

Today, a new imperative has emerged: an awareness that our ethical concerns should extend to all members of the global community. This points to a new planetary ethics transcending the ancient religious, ethnic, racial, and national enmities of the past. It is an ethic that recognizes our common interests and needs as part of an interdependent world.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Freethought Post of the Day

A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.

- Aristotle, Politics.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Success of the Scientific Method

John Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist, writes:
With modern science we simply don't need metaphysical assumptions, since a good scientist could be an atheist, a pantheist, a deist, or a Muslim. The bottom line, if nothing else, is that science justifies itself pragmatically. We needed some assumptions to help get science off the ground and to jettison the superstitions that held us back from discovering it. But those beliefs which we might have called assumptions in a prior era are now known as the bedrock facts of science because, if for no other reason, they produce solid results. (p. 115)

In other words, science is reliable because when we relied on it in the past it delivered the goods.

Suppose you wanted to balance your checkbook, and I handed you a calculator. You might begin without preconceptions and ask, "Is this calculator accurate?" The best way to determine if the calculator can properly add and multiply is to begin with the assumption that it is accurate and test it. Punch in some numbers that you can verify by other means (either easy calculations you can perform in your head or more complicated ones you can verify with another calculator already determined to be accurate) and test your results. If the numbers add up properly, then you are safe to conclude the calculator can be relied on.

The origin of the scientific method can be attributed to Thales of Miletus, a Greek philosopher living more than a hundred years before Socrates. Thales was the first to use naturalistic assumptions regarding the origin of the world, namely, he argued that everything was composed of water. Prior to Thales, Greeks attributed all of nature to the workings of supernatural gods and heroes. Even though Thales' speculations were incorrect, his contribution was a ground-breaking idea that paved the way for naturalism and it's inordinate success in correctly describing our world.

Loftus continues:
Moreover, the results of science are breaking down superstitions around the globe, too. So in a way, as science progresses it's tearing at the heart of religious beliefs everywhere by providing the answers that religion always promised but failed to deliver. (p. 116)

Freethought Quote for the Day

"I have yet to see a successful prediction about the physical world that was inferred or extrapolated from the content of any religious document. Indeed, I can make an even stronger statement. Whenever people have used religious documents to make detailed predictions about the physical world they have been famously wrong. By a prediction I mean a precise statement about the untested behavior of objects or phenomena in the natural world that gets logged before the event takes place."

--Neil DeGrasse Tyson, "Holy Wars" in Kurtz, Science and Religion: Are they Compatible? pp. 74-75.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What I Believe, Don't Believe, and Know

It's said that roughly ten percent of conversations among atheists and agnostics involve arguing over the definitions of atheism and agnosticism. Sometimes I'm inclined to think that number is too low by an order of magnitude.

At any rate, the following is a brief explanation of my position and what I call myself, if such labels are truly necessary.

First, I do not know if God exists or if there is any such thing as a supernatural realm. By this statement, I consider myself to be an agnostic. However, I do not know if the question of whether God exists is knowable, which makes me a empirical agnostic (or "weak agnostic"). Ask me if God exists, and I'll say, "I don't know." Ask me if it can be known if God exists, and I'll say, "I don't know that, either."

Second, I do not believe that any of the gods offered to me as "Exhibit A" by various people past and present qualify as God or anything else supernatural. They all fail for one reason or another. Either they are a part of the universe (like a wooden idol) or they are physically incoherent (like Jehovah being a spirit but with nostrils to smell the savor of a burned sacrifice) or they are logically incoherent (like an omnibenevolent being in a world with pointless suffering). Everybody does not believe in one god or another--I just round down to zero. By this, I consider myself to be an atheist, more specifically, a weak atheist.

Third, I believe that God does not exist. I base this belief on the lack of evidence for the existence of God, combined with the inordinate amount of evidence that various gods do not exist. In other words, my lack of belief in all the various particular gods leads me to believe--but not conclude--that no god exists. Naturally, all it would take for me to believe that God exists is reliable, firm evidence.

So in summary, I don't know if God exists; I don't believe that your God exists, and I believe that no God exists.

Instant Messages From a Skeptic

I get IMs from my brother, Theodore, who had this to say:

Theodore: "Christianity is unique because it's the only religion that centers on a miracle worker."

Me: "Oh come on. Countless religions past and present have had miracle workers as well."

Theodore: "Sure, but those don't count."

Me: "Why not?"

Theodore: "Because all those other miracles are fake."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Win Ray Comfort's Money

As I mentioned in a previous entry, Ray Comfort of the Living Waters Publications has issued a challenge: Win $10,000 for proof of evolution.

The challenge begins with two paragraphs. The first is a summary of Intelligent Design, which states that since buildings don't build themselves, then the universe is absolute proof there is a Creator. But a cave is a type of building, isn't it? People can live or store goods in caves and they weren't built by a designer.

The ID paragraph reads that the Bible says that God made all things then caused every animal to bring forth "after its own kind." What's not explained is how the author of Genesis obtained his information. Did he peform carefully controlled lab experiments to demonstrate that God created the universe? What field work did he undergo? What controls were used to eliminate false positives? Was Genesis peer reviewed for accuracy? Or did the author just dream up the whole story, in which case should it be taken as seriously as any other dream?

Finally the ID paragraph explains that liars and people who are attracted to members of the opposite sex are going to hell. What that has to do with Intelligent Design or Evolution is unexplained, but everything I've seen from Living Waters has to mention hell for some reason.

The next paragraph defines evolution theory as quoted from Berkely university.

What follows is a long list of quotes from various sources in which, at first glance, it appears that highly-trained scientists think that evolution theory is nothing but a hoax or fairy tale. (There is a notable absence of any quotes from trained scientists who think that Intelligent Design is not legitimate science--only quotes against evolution are listed.) For example:
“Paleontologists have discovered a new skeleton in the closet of human ancestry that is likely to force science to revise, if not scrap, current theories of human origins. Reuters reported that the discovery left scientists of human evolution . . . confused, saying, 'Lucy may not even be a direct human ancestor after all.” USA Today, March 21, 2001.

Searching the web for this source pointed me to the full article from the New York Times here: Skull May Alter Experts' View Of Human Descent's Branches, which begins as thus:
"Paleontologists in Africa have found a 3.5 million-year-old skull from what they say is an entirely new branch of the early human family tree, a discovery that threatens to overturn the prevailing view that a single line of descent stretched through the early stages of human ancestry."

The article goes on to explain that the new hominid demonstrates that human ancestry is not a single-line tree leading from modern humans back to Australopithecus afarensis but is in fact more like a bush, with various branches of hominids spreading in multiple directions. For a long time, our fossil record regarding early hominid ancestors was too sparse to be able to accurately judge the connections among them all. The more new fossils we find the more we can fill in the pieces of the puzzle.

This is exactly as to be expected. Suppose we consider a man named Bob who is researching his family tree. If the only relatives Bob knows about are himself, his mother, and his mother's mother, then his family tree will be a straight line, from himself down to his grandmother. But say in the course of genealogical research, he discovers that he has a twin brother who was given up for adoption at birth, and that his mother has several cousins, and that his grandmother was adopted into a blended family, meaning she has several half-siblings. The result of this research would naturally complicate Bob's family tree and with the extra branches would make it more bush-like.

Like so with the new fossil finding. The more fossils we find of our humanoid ancestors, the more complete our "family bush" will be. Paleontologists naturally discuss and argue over which branch belongs where, but all arguments are engaged within an evolutionary framework.

That's not what Ray Comfort wants us to think, however. He carefully selected this quote to suggest that with each new hominid fossil found, more and more evolutionary scientists are "confused" and beginning to question whether evolution ever happened at all. Of course, anyone reading the article would never come to this conclusion.

For example, notice the elipses in the quote on Comfort's site: "the discovery left scientists of human evolution . . . confused." What's in the missing gap there?

First off, to say that a scientist is confused by a new finding is not a sign of the science being a fairy tale. Scientists of all disciplines could call themselves "confused" when new evidence doesn't fit in with conventional models. All that means is the the models need to be adjusted to accommodate the new evidence. With the new evidence comes a stronger theory. That's not a bug of the scientific method, it's a feature.

But Living Waters has a different agenda. Here's the actual quote from the article: "The discoverers and other scientists of human evolution say they are not necessarily surprised by the findings, but certainly confused."

Comfort doesn't want you to know that the finding of a new branch of human ancestry doesn't surprise scientists. They're not surprised because they've been expecting and looking for additional branches of human ancestors all along. If the paleontologists are confused, it's because they haven't settled on exactly where to place the new branch of humanoids. This would be like Bob finding a relative, then puzzling over whether it’s a third-cousin-twice-removed, or a fourth-cousin-once-removed. Comfort just wants to suggest that they are confused because evolution is false. The fact that he doesn't provide links to the original articles makes it more difficult for readers to investigate for themselves. This hiding of key information from a quote is classic quote mining and it is deceptive.

The website goes on to explain to explain the $10,000 offer. "A transitional form (or missing link) is an example of one species “evolving” into another species."

Right off, I suspect no one will ever win Ray's money. He cites Archaopteryx as an example of a transtional form often mentioned, but then quotes Dr. Alan Feduccia stating, "It's a bird." What Comfort doesn't tell you is that while Feduccia disagrees with his fellow evolutionary scientists about the origin of Archaopteryx, he is no Intelligent Design supporter either. TalkOrigins has this to say:
Alan Feduccia who opposes the idea that birds are descended from dinosaurs and instead argues that birds are descended from non-dinosaur archosaurs (a taxon that includes dinosaurs) is often quoted by evolution deniers. Feduccia is a qualified scientist and should not be just dismissed, but his views are in an extreme minority within the scientific community. It is simply bad reasoning for the evolution deniers to use Feduccia's writing disagreeing with conventional ideas of bird evolution while ignoring the many experts that disagree with him. (Source.)

So Comfort highlights the fact that Dr. Feduccia doesn't think that Archaeopteryx evolved from dinosaurs but ignores the fact the Feduccia thinks that Archaeopteryx evolved from archosaurs. How that means that Archaeopteryx is not a transitional form is not explained. (*EDIT: See note below.)

Comfort continues: "I will give $10,000 to the first person who can prove to me that they have found a genuine living transitional form (a lizard that produced a bird, or a dog that produced kittens, or a sheep that produced a chicken, or even as Archaeopteryx—a dinosaur that produced a bird). Species do not cross, no matter how long you leave them. The whole of creation is proof that evolution is truly “a fairytale for grownups.”

Note the qualifier "living transitional form." The species in question has to be alive to qualify, and Comfort has helpfully posted a Photoshopped picture of a duck with a dog's head to give an example. He says he would accept Archaeopteryx, but perhaps not, since Archaeopteryx is no longer living. Therefore any of the long list of species demonstrating evolutionary transition wouldn't count because they are all extinct. A organism living today wouldn't count either since organisms don't evolve while they are alive.

So in a nutshell, nothing will satisfy Comfort's challenge, and nothing ever will. Comfort's money is quite safe, which is exactly as I suspect Comfort expects it to be, but I also suspect that he will use the fact that he has never paid off the $10,000 as one more "proof" that no one can demonstrate evolution. Of course, anyone can demonstrate evolution, both in the fossil record and in the laboratory, but it is true that no one can demonstrate a caricature, a cartoon, or a strawman of accomplished reasonable science.

* Edit to add:

Alan Feduccia had this to say about Answers in Genesis repeatedly using his "It's just a bird," line:

Yes, of course this is preposterous. I was the person who coined the phrase in 1980 that, "Archaeopteryx is a Rosetta Stone of evolution!" Archaeopteryx is clearly transitory between reptiles and birds; the question is: what group of reptiles. The current dogma is that birds are directly derived from theropod dinosaurs, but there are numerous serious problems with this proposal, namely,
– the time line is all wrong.
– requires a ground-up origin of flight.
– many characters don't match, especially the digits.
– requires that all sophisticated flight architecture be evolved in an earth-bound, flightless dinosaur!!

At any rate count on the creationists to misquote people to foster their cause.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Most Popular Fairytale?

Yesterday, while browsing in my local bookstore, I picked up a small 3x5 card dropped on the floor. On the front was printed, "The World's Ten Most Popular Things (Test Your Knowledge)." Below that are several questions such as, "Most popular name?" and "Most popular car?" After each question is a scratch-off like a lottery ticket revealing the answer ("Mohammed" and "VW Beetle", respectively).

The final question is "Most popular fairy tale?" No, the answer is not "Hansel and Gretel" or "Cinderella." Scratching off the answer reveals the world's most popular fairy tale is "Darwinian evolution." Surprise, you've just been set up. In truth, this card isn't a harmless hand-out featuring trivia; it's a witnessing tract produced by Living Waters Publications, a fundamentalist Christian publishing firm. A case of 100 of these scratch-off cards costs $8.00. Someone paid to get this tract into my hands, then left it behind at the bookstore with the hopes of me reading it.. Thank you, whoever you are, for I am going to analyze this publication.

Below the questions and answers is a long, dense paragraph in small print that tries to cram as many of the Evangelical Right's talking points as possible onto both sides. The paragraph reads:

"Do you believe the last one?" (Meaning that Darwinian Evolution is the world's most popular fairy tale.) "If you don't, go to and pick up $10,000--if you can provide just one living "transitional form." (I'll deal with this challenge in another entry.)

"Before you do," reads the tract, "test your knowledge one more time: What does someone have to do to go to Heaven?" How did a question about evolution suddenly turn into a religious quiz? Which religion's heaven are we talking about here?

"The answer is to look to the Ten Commandments." Ah, Living Waters is clearly referring to the Christian heaven. They cite the Ten Commandments, which is a set of Jewish laws provided by Jehovah to ancient Hebrews--a people who, by the way, had little to no concept of Heaven other than the place where Jehovah and other gods resided. Ancient Hebrews would have not understood the idea of them going to heaven given that they barely had an understanding of an afterlife. But some Christians have gleaned out the parts of the Jewish law that they like, ignored vast swaths of Jewish law that they don't, and mashed it with the apocalyptic teaching of Jesus and Paul, which allows them to judge others on their eternal destination.

"Have you loved God above all else? That's the requirement of the First Commandment." Is there a God? Which God do you mean? How can I love something that I can't interact with? Why would God be offended if I love my wife or son more than I love him--are his feelings that easy to bruise?

"Or have you broken the Second by making a god in your mind that you're comfortable with, a god to suit yourself--something the Bible calls 'idolatry'?" First, how can I make a god in my mind? Second, nowhere in the Bible is idolatry defined as a comfortable concept in my mind. Idolatry in the Bible is always associated with outward expressions of worship--not inward thoughts.

"Have you ever used God's name in vain?" Perhaps, but why would an omnipotent God care if I did? Incidentally, I don't think the Third Commandment is about the words we utter when we stub our toes but are more related to speaking curses against others while invoking God for powerful effect--in other words, using God to invoke magic. Which I have never done.

"Have you always honored your parents implicitly, and kept the Sabbath holy?" While I have not always obeyed my parents--particulary when they were raising me--I fully honor them today, implicitly and explicitly--and did so even when a child. I don't disobey people I don't honor--what's the point of rebelling against people that don't affect me? Even if I did, my parents have forgiven my childish slights and fully love me today. Why is that so difficult for God to do?

Also, I have not kept the Sabbath holy because I do not subscribe to the Jewish religion.

"Have you hated someone? The Bible says, 'whoever hates his brother is a murderer.'" Yes, I have hated people in the past, usually to no end. I have never murderered anyone, however. If someone feels that hating someone is just the same as murdering them, then perhaps we need to rewrite the American criminal code to allow trying and convicting people who hate others. But this would be silly, of course, as everyone has likely either hated or been hated by someone somewhere. Humans are an emotional species and hatred is easy to come by. I can see if someone might poetically compare the emotions of hatred with the emotions surrounded by murder, but to argue that hate equals literal murder is absurd. What's more, Psalm 105 states that God turns hearts to hatred to serve his purposes, so how can he then judge us for hating?

"The Seventh is, "You shall not commit adultery," but Jesus said, "Whoever looks upon a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" (the Seventh Commandment includes sex before marriage)." First, no the Seventh Commandment does not include pre-marital sex. It says "you shall not commit adultery." Throwing in other sins to make sure you've covered everyone is deceptive. Second, so what if Jesus thinks being attracted to someone of the opposite sex is the same as adultery--I disagree. Why should we be concerned with what an unmarried itinerant Jewish apocalyptic prophet thinks? If we didn't find other people attractive enough to want to have sex with them, there would be no reason to get married and bear children, and there goes the human race into extinction.

"On Judgement Day, will you be found to be innocent or guilty? Heaven or Hell?" Wait, are heaven and hell real? Where's your proof?

The rest of the tract spells out the traditional evangelical message--that God is horribly offended that we aren't perfect but he also provided us a loophole from eternal torture--namely, the temporary torture and death of an innocent man named Jesus. We are encouraged to pray a prayer of forgiveness, obey the Bible (an impossibility, by the way) and visit Living Waters website for more instructions (and to purchase more product, presumably.)

Philosophers have been wrestling with how to be a good person and have a rich and satisfying life for millenia. Living Waters starts with a tease about evolution, then layers on several accusatory questions to invoke guilt for being human, followed by an unsupportable story about how we can escape everlasting pain and torture--all on a three-by-five notecard.

Sorry, but I'm going to stick with my original answer to "What's the most popular fairy tale?" . . . Revealed Religion.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Freethought Quote for the Day - November 14, 2008

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

--Ben Franklin

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tract Links Hurricanes to God's Wrath

Chick Publications has released a new tract called Somebody Angry? As is usually the case, the tract is chock-full of errors, fallacies, and unproved assertions.

Panel One: A meteorologist that a hurricane's winds are 170mph and increasing . . . "This could become a category five."
Error: According to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, a Category 5 hurricane is any storm with winds over 156 miles per hour.

Panel Three: A sidebar lists the time at 10:40 am, and someone remarks, "We anticipate landfall in 6 hours.
Error: Hurricane Rita made landfall at 02:38 CDT, sixteen hours later than this character estimated.

Panel Four: A stranded motorist fleeing the Gulf Coast cries, "I'm afraid! Why is God doing this to us?"
Assertion: While being stranded in a deadly situation is nothing to joke about, the line is intended to set up the premise for the tract--namely, that God sends hurricanes to punish people for their sins. As the tract later explains, if anything negative occurs to a country, it's because God is punishing those people--particularly for their treatment of Jews.

Panel Five: A television meteorologist reports that strings of tornados are forming across Arkansas: "Now we have two disasters hitting us at once!"
Error: The meteorologist implies that the tornados occurring at the same time that Rita hit was a coincidence. In reality, the tornados were caused by Rita's high winds. Rita's tornados were unusual in that they moved in a northwest direction but most tornados move northeast. Incidentally, no deaths were reported in Arkansas due to Rita or the tornados.

Panel Nine: "Grandpa" (not named) says the disaster was because of what "we" did to Israel today.

Panel Eleven: After the storm passes, a boy declares, "It skipped us, Grandpa. Nothing was touched!" Grandpa thanks God for saving their farm again.
Assertion: Asking God for protection will spare you from destruction. This is proven false by every Christian who has befallen a natural disaster. Simply put, some Christians prayed for protection from Hurricane Rita and they lost their home and in some cases, their lives. It seems arbitrary that God spares some and ruins other, all who pray the same prayers. In the next panel, a neighbor, "Charlie," suggests they may have just been lucky, but Grandpa knows better.

Panel Thirteen: Grandpa reads Zechariah 12:9: "And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem." Charlie says that sounds scary, and Grandpa says that God is scary to his enemies.
Error and Assertion: Zechariah's prophecy was meant as a warning to the enemies of Israel of his time--it was not intended to be a promise that twenty-five hundred years later a hurricane will hit another continent around the world. As a prophecy, it is so open-ended that it's vulnerable to misinterpretation. Other prophecies issued by Zecharia never came true, such as the river Nile drying up, and Israel will never be oppressed after being freed from capitivity. Moreover, so little is known about Zechariah that it's not clear why his warnings should be heeded at all. Why would Charlie be more scared of this passage than, say, a similar threat uttered by Sauron from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings?

Panel Fifteen through Twenty-One: A brief retelling of Israel's early history, from God selecting Abram to live in Palestine, Hebrews suffering as slaves in Egypt, the Ten Plagues, the Exodus to the Promised Land, and the defeat of the Canaanite residents.
Assertion: This story is not supported by any archaeological evidence. There is no Egyptian record of the reported two millon Hebrews fleeing Egyptian slavery nor of any plagues decimating Egypt. There is no evidence of a large mass of people spending forty years in the wilderness between Egypt and Palestine. There is no evidence of entrenched city-states being destroyed by an invading army of Hebrews. The archaeological evidence suggests the Israelites grew out of Canaan as one of many competing subgroups that eventually dominated and unified the people.

Panel Twenty-Three: Grandpa says that the Jews rebelled against God and were forced to scatter across the world, becoming known as the Wandering Jew.
Error: The Wandering Jew is a thirteenth-century Christian folklore about a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to Crucifixion and was cursed to live and wander until the Second Coming. It was also a convenient explanation to the apparent failed prophecy of Jesus who uttered, "There are some standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." When generations went by and Jesus never returned, the Wandering Jew was invented to safeguard the prophecy. The Wandering Jew has nothing to do with Jews living in many parts of the world. People-groups have spread all across the globe for a variety of reasons and eventually influenced and were assimilated by the people they intermingled with. Jews have been able to maintain their Jewish identity only by strict adherence to Jewish law and culture and adopting a separatist mindset.

Panel Twenty-Four: Grandpa states that During World War II, Hitler killed 6 million Jews. The whole world hated them--especially the Muslims, the Vatican, and England.
Error: The Jewish Holocaust was a tragedy of epic proportions, but I'm not sure why England is singled out. Many countries were either neutral or hostile toward Jewish refugees--England being no exception. But England did fight the European takeover of the German Nazis, indirectly fighting on the Jew's behalf. While there was anti-semitism in England, there were also supporters of British Jews, who never had to endure the persecution of their European kin. Nearly 100,000 European Jews were allowed to migrate to Britain before the war, and 10,000 Jewish children were saved by the Kindersport, although their parents were not given visas. Again, why Chick Publications singles England out is unclear.

Panel Twenty-Five: Grandpa asserts that "England has paid the price for double-crossing Israel. She lost her Empire."
Assertion: It's not clear how England "double-crossed" Israel. England's empire has been in decline for most of the twentieth-century, no doubt in part to the heavy losses she took fighting an expansionist Germany in two wars--partly on behalf of the Jews.

Panel Twenty-Seven: Grandpa states that in 1991, George H. W. Bush "launched his land-for-peace plan by giving away Israeli land. That day, God sent the Perfect Storm with 100 foot waves into New England, damaging even President Bush's home."
Error: The Land-for-peace formula first appeared in the UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967, not 1991. The 1991 Halloween Nor'Easter exhibited 30 to 50 foot waves.

Panel Twenty-Eight through Twenty-Nine: Grandpa states that in August 2005, the U.S. pressured Israel into evacuating Gaza. The very next day, 8/29/05, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Error: Israel's Unilateral Disengagement Plan was proposed the Israeli Prime Minister Sharon in June 2004. The evacuation began August 15, 2005 and lasted until September 12, 2005.

Panel Thirty-One: A long list of dates detailing US involvement in Israeli-Arab negotiations to broker peace, followed by natural and man-made disasters that occurred around the same time.
Assertion: More Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc assertions. The US gets involved with the Israeli peace process, and somewhere else in a country three-thousand-miles across, a natural disaster occurs, such as tornados or flooding. Grandpa asks, "Does anybody notice a pattern?" Of course, natural disasters occur in the US every year--including years in which the US does not make a major shift in foreign policy with regard to Israel, but those years aren't listed. This is counting the hits and ignoring the misses.

What's more, Grandpa states that in August 2001, the US, Arabia, and Israel prepare a comprehensive peace plan, and while negotiations were going still going on, "God lifted His hand of protection," resulting in the 9/11 attacks. The problem with this is that Khalid Sheik Mohammed proposed the attacks to Osama Bin Laden in 1996, and the hijackers arrived in the United States to begin their flight training in 2000. I don't know what the comprehensive peace plan of 2001 mentioned in the tract refers to: The Camp David summit took place in 2000, and the Beirut summit took place in March 2002. The assertion that God allowed the 9/11 attack to take place because of this unknown 2001 peace plan that were still being finalized is disturbing. Suppose the plans fell through at the last minute? Also, God's Hand of Protection implies that people try to fly planes into American buildings all the time but are magically repulsed by an invisible force-field that God raises and lowers at will. This is a deeply disturbing notion.

Panel Thirty-Three: Another Zechariah verse spelling doom for Israel's enemies. According to Grandpa, this prophecy hasn't come true--yet--but when it does, billions will die.
Assertion: We've already seen that Zechariah's prophecy was intended for Zechariah's audience, and that open-ended prophecies that might come true someday are meaningless. Plus, the intention is clear: Zecharia said that all the people of the earth will fight Israel, there are over six billion people on earth, therefore billions of people will die. That doesn't bother Grandpa because hey, if it's in the Bible it must be true.

The rest of the tract is the standard witnessing fare from Chick Publications: Despite the fact that God wants to destroy the United States for trying to keep Israelis and Arabs from killing each other over the same few square miles of land, He loves you and wants you to live forever, or else you can go to Hell.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Does Religion Reduce Aggression?

Some religious believers argue that religious activities such as prayer and reading the Bible can reduce agression.

However, in an article in the December 2008 issue of Psychology Today, a study was performed by Mark Leach of University of Southern Mississippi that suggests differently. 42 Christians spent five minutes reading a Bible passage or meditating. They then selected the intensities of electrical shocks to give to opponents in response to shocks that they themselves received. The Christians who had been "primed for peace" set the same intensity level as the control group who merely read the New York Times for five minutes.

According to the article, "[W]hile those who claim to practice religion in the service of God are no more peaceful than the rest of us, they believe that they are."

It's an interesting conclusion, but I can't find the actual study results for further scrutiny, and the methodology could be flawed. After all, certain passages of the Bible are more aggressive than others, and the same could be said of New York Times articles. Would reading about, say, the slaughter of the Canaanites by God's chosen people make someone more likely to turn up the juice on someone who's just shocked her, compared to reading, say, a pastoral Psalm? What about reading an NYT article about a Christian cult member found guilty of abusing a child compared to a milder political analysis? I would need to see the study before making any firm conclusions.

Friday, November 7, 2008

"Outsider status" leads to atheist pessimism

Paul Bloom of Slate magazine writes that, in general, atheists are mean and selfish, whereas believers are nice and generous.

The article makes some interesting points. One premise why believers in God tend to be more happy is that they believe they are never alone, or that God is watching them. But as Phil Zuckerman recently demonstrated in his book, Society Without God, countries that have a high rate of atheists, such as Denmark and Sweden commit far fewer violent crimes than the United States.

As Bloom writes:

So, this is a puzzle. If you look within the United States, religion seems to make you a better person. Yet atheist societies do very well—better, in many ways, than devout ones.

I agree with Bloom in that the answer lies in the community. Danes and Swedes have strong communities despite their lack of supernatural belief, and those communities have social benefits. American atheists, however, are often excluded from community life by their religious neighbors. As Bloom concludes:

The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens . . . find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one.

Does God Exist? - Friel-Barker Debate - Audience Q & A

The last segment of the debate was Question from the Audience. The moderator read questions that were written down by audience members earlier to both participants, alternating between Barker and Friel. This segment was very disappointing to me. I will admit that the format of the segment allowed for more informality, but I was disappointed that the moderator could not keep control, allowing both participants to engage in one-on-one arguments with an audience member and not answering the questions given but rebutting the other's previous answers. Also, I was disappointed in both Friel and Barker interrupting each other's alotted time with comebacks and rebuttals, Barker especially. Most of all, I was disappointed in both participant's answers to some of their questions.

Barker was asked, "How does morality exist without God?" Barker responded that morality is not a thing that can either exist or not exist, but a label for our actions in the world. He argued that moral people seek to minimize harm, which requires reason, not obedience to rules. When it comes to deciding what to do and when, humanists follow standards whereas religionists follow rules.

Friel was asked, "If evolution is untrue, why is there so much evidence for it?" Friel responded as expected by claiming there was no evidence because science can't reproduce the entirety of evolution in a lab. Of course, science can't reproduce the Genesis creation event in a lab either, so perhaps that never happened. Science can't reproduce a global flood in a lab so we can close the books on that one as well.

Friel then rebutted Barker's previous answer by claiming that morality is much more than just minimizing harm but by doing right vs. wrong. He deplored Barker's situational ethics by stating, "I hope a masochist and a sadomasochist don't become President and Vice-President or we're all in big trouble." This made zero sense to me.

At this point an audience member complained that Friel wasn't answering the question, and he shot back that he did answer the question but had more time left so he thought he'd rebut Barker's morality answer--an unfair move. Either the answers should stand as they are or Barker should have been given the opportunity to defend his answer.

Friel relented to audience complaints by re-addressing the evidence for evolution by excoriating the Fossil Record. "Quick, someone bring me a transitional fossil--they are all fully formed." This naturally raises the question of what Friel considers to be a transitional fossil. If a species exhibits both traits of lizards as well as birds, could that be a transitional species? If so, take a look at archaeopteryx. What about a species with traits of both fish and amphibians? If so, then consider tiktaalik. Traits of both non-human apes and modern humans? Here's homo rudolfensis.

But Friel later explained what he means by a transitional species: "Show me the one that has a half a wing on one side and a full wing on the other. They don't exist, they'd be on the cover of Time magazine." No evolutionary biologist has argued that a transitional species is anything like this. The very term "transitional species" is misleading in that since all species evolved from older, more primitive species, then all species are transitional. What's more, a species with half a wing would be at a severe disadvantage to it's two-winged brethren and thus would be far less likely to reproduce. If we showed Friel any modern-day examples of organisms with stunted limbs, he would probably write those off as freaks of nature (freaks of an intelligent designer?) and say they don't count.

Barker was asked, "Why do we exist?" Barker answered, "My mother and dad fell in love and had sex." While this might answer the question why Barker exists, the question was why do we exist, and given the context of the debate it's clear the questioner was referring to 'we' as 'the human race.' When an audience member complained that he didn't answer the question, Barker replied that he did and wouldn't clarify further. This was bad form on Barker's part, in my opinion.

Friel was asked, "Why would an all-loving, all-powerful god create human beings and allow them to suffer so that he could be worshiped and given credit for anything that goes right?" Friel responded that it was a false question. He claimed that what we call suffering is not really suffering. Saint Augustine argued that creation was created to be perfect but when God restores the world from evil it will be even better. This is a contradiction--how can something be better than perfect? Friel skirted the question by insisting that if we agree that something is evil it must require a moral law-giver. The question was not about where do we get morality, something Friel had already covered. It was why does God allow suffering--is it really just so that he can get praise when he fixes it? Friel downplayed what we consider to be suffering--it might be a test from God, or it could be the results of our own mistakes. How dare we puny humans call something suffering when God is doing it for a good reason. That's cold comfort for parents who bury a dead child, but that's Friel's answer. "This is His Story," Friel concluded. "That's where we get the word 'history'." This is flat-out incorrect. "History" is a derivative of the Greek word 'histor' which means one who knows or sees. It has nothing to do with God having his way with us in order to garner our lavish praise.

I was pleased to hear both Barker and Friel discount Pascal's Wager when asked about it. Pascal's Wager is, Barker said, Argument from Intimidation and leads to selfish morality--just pick the religion with the worst hell and subscribe to it in a effort to beat the odds.

Friel was asked, "Do you believe believers and non-believers have different standards when claiming to know something?" Friel claimed they do, because believers don't have faith, they have knowledge of God. While this may sound true, it can be countered by other believers. The Christian knows in his heart that Jesus is alive; the Muslim knows in his heart that Allah is the one true God; the atheist knows in his heart that God does not exist. How do we tell who's right? Personal experience is an experience for only one person and can not be objectively evaluated.

Friel was asked, "If God created something out of nothing, where did God come from? If God always existed, why couldn't the universe have always existed?" Friel asked back incredulously, "You believe the universe always existed?! Everything has to have a start." Apparently Friel didn't hear the question: If everything has to have a start, then who or what started God? Why not skip a step and claim that the universe has always existed? Yes, this might make the question, "Where did the universe come from" an unanswerable one, but an unanswerable question is better than an unsupportable answer. Appealing to God as the origin of the universe is answering one mystery with another bigger mystery.

Friel immediately changed the subject (again) and questioned Barker's activities with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which works to keep church and state separate, sometimes by bringing lawsuits against government agencies using tax dollars to engage in sectarian activities. Friel simply stated, "They sue to get God and prayer out of public schools." This is, of course, an outright lie. How a small non-profit organization can keep an omnipresent deity out of a school building is hard to understand, and public school students are not denied the right to pray, read scriptures, or discuss their religion provided they don't interrupt classroom instruction. The FFRF and other secular advocacy groups have worked to prevent teachers and administrators, acting on behalf of the government, from promoting and endorsing religious doctrine. I daresay that if Friel had a child in public school, and that child's mathematics teacher said, "Class, before we begin, lets roll out your prayer mats and bow to Mecca five times while praising the one God Allah and his most favored prophet, Mohammed," then Friel would be first in line to "get God out of public schools." Friel wants public schools to be drenched in religion--so long as it's his religion.

Friel then rattled out an obviously memorized blizzard of statistics that can be laid at the feet of a United States Supreme Court decision to end public school's sectarian prayers in the early 1960s: "The population of the United States has gone up 42%, but violent crime is up 560%, teen violence up 400%, illegitimacy up 400%, STD's are up, there have been 28 million abortions, 28 million wounded, 28 million dead, teen suicide is up 200% . . . Congratulations!"

While it is true that the United States has grown more violent in the recent decades, Friel failed to prove that the rise in violence is due to public school teachers leading their classes in Christian prayers every day. This is a fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc or, 'after this, therefore because of this.' The rise in violence also followed the Civil Rights movement, the beginning of the Beatles' legendary music careers, and the launching of the first American weather satellite in orbit, but I don't think that Friel would associate the rise in violence with those events.

What's more, what are we to make of the 28 million abortions cited, given that only a small percentage of abortions are performed on school students? What does he mean by 28 million wounded? Are we blaming household and workplace accidents on the lack of public school prayer? What about the 28 million dead? Are senior citizens dying in nursing homes at a skyrocketing rate because the Supreme Court ruled public-school-endorsed sectarian prayers as unconstitutional? And is it just a coincidence that all three items are the same number?

That violence has risen in the United States throughout the entire twentieth century--not just since the 1960s--is beyond question, but the reason likely stems from many factors. In addition, violent crime has been actually decreasing since the early 1990's and it isn't because prayer was restored in public schools.

Blaming atheism for violence is a common tactic by religious believers and is not supported by evidence. Non-believers comprise anywhere from 5% to 15% of U.S. population, depending on how surveys are conducted, yet they comprise a disproportionate percentage of the prison population (0.21%). The United States, the most Christian nation in the G-8, also has the highest murder rate, whereas Japan, the most atheistic nation in the G-8, has the lowest murder rate. Louisiana has America's highest church attendance rate and also twice the national average murder rate. Atheism is not the cause of violence.

Amusingly, at this point the moderator finally interjects Friel's sermon to reiterate that he didn't answer the question as given. "If God created something out of nothing, where did God come from? If God has always existed, why couldn't the universe have always existed?"

Friel attempted to use two laws of Thermodynamics to explain his case. The first law--matter is neither created nor destroyed--and the second law--disorder increases over time. Friel attempted to forstall objections by saying that he understands the difference between an open system and a closed system but, he says, "it makes no difference." Of course he doesn't want it to make a difference--if it did, it would undercut his argument. "There must be something above the universe to put it in order," Friel asserts. Which of course raises the obvious follow-up question, "What was above God to put him in order?" If you say something else, then you have infinite regress. If you say 'nothing,' then your statement that everything must be ordered by something else is incorrect. If you make an exception for God, then you are guilty of special pleading. Friel is backed in a corner in every way.

For some reason, the moderator asked three different questions of Barker to explain his background of moving from a Christian to an atheist, which was two questions too many. Each time Barker had to explain that not only was he a Christian, he was a super-Christian, engaging in numerous Christian acts. This was no doubt to overcome Friel's ad hominem attack against Barker for being a false convert. I also speculate that some in the audience wanted to know Barker's religous background in order to dispel it. It's far too common for Christians to dismiss the beliefs of other Christians on the grounds that they aren't biblically correct. So if Dan had said he was raised a Catholic, the Protestants would have concluded he wasn't a real Christian, but if he said he was raised a Protestant, the Catholics would have reached the same conclusion. That's just speculation, of course, but that was the way I thought of deconverted Christians when I was a believer. "Oh, you didn't belong to my narrow doctrinal denomination? Well, no wonder you don't believe in God anymore." Again, that's just my speculation.

Friel was asked, "What about a third option--polytheism?" He started off by naming other religions, most of them monotheistic, and embarassed himself with his lack of fundamental knowledge of all of them. "If you live in China, you probably believe in Buddha." (An audience member complained that Buddha was not a god, to which Friel replied, "Whatever.") "If you live in India, you can carve out one of 280 million pieces of wood and worship it." (Never mind that Hindus do not worship pieces of wood.) "Or you can worship some Native American deity. (Many Native Americans worshipped the monotheistic Great Spirit.) "Or if you're in Saudi Arabia you can be told that Jesus doesn't exist and that he was just a prophet, not God." (A contradiction in one sentence, unless Friel believes that prophets don't exist.) "If all of these religions were true," Friel continued, "then God would have to be schizophrenic in order to accomodate all the different worshippers."

But again, the question was not, "Aren't all religions true?" The question was, "What about polytheism?" There are good arguments against polytheism which can be made by a montheist like Friel or an atheist like Barker. Why Friel didn't answer the question as asked is puzzling.

"Either all the other gods are right," Friel concluded, "or Jesus is right, or they are all wrong, but they can't be all right. Jesus won't allow for it."

Classic question-begging. First Friel dismisses the possibility of polytheism and just starts comparing different religions, so he ignored the question entirely. Next he listed the options in his fallacious trilemma: A) All the other gods are right (even though they are mutually exclusive and by definition can't be all right.) B) Jesus is right (Friel's obvious choice.) C) They are all wrong (which would be Barker's and the atheist's position.) "But they (the three options) can't be all right, because Jesus won't allow for it."

So according to Friel, since option A is logically incoherent, we have to choose option B--Jesus is right--because that's the only one that Jesus will allow. (But what about option C?) Yes, the Gospel of John has Jesus saying that he is the only way to God. But did John quote Jesus accurately? Difficult to say. And how did Jesus know that he was the only way to God? Who told him that? Again, difficult to say. Most importantly, is Jesus really the only way to God. The answer depends on whether you've already accepted Jesus, which begs the question. Mohammed said that he was the only way to God as well--does that mean the Christian is wrong and the Muslim is right?

The final question was offered to both participants: "Do you really think you can change someone's mind tonight?" Barker answered first and fell into a classic trap that I saw coming right away. He answered Yes, because in his experience of debating and advocating atheism people have later contacted him and thanked him for pointing out problems with their beliefs. Whether they fully deconverted to atheism or just eliminated bad thinking from their faith, they improved their minds.

The more he went on, however, the more Barker assumed an arrogant and dismissive tone, accusing hostile audience members of being ignorant of their bible and lying to themselves if they haven't had doubts in their "heart of hearts." Any gains he might have made advocating freethought and skepticism that night were possibly snuffed by this cold-hearted and insulting position.

Friel, however, finished with a win, saying that No, he can't change anyone's mind. He had been advocating all evening that God has to have the credit for everything--even the evil and suffering in our lives that God himself creates for us--so naturally he would claim that only God can change a person.


All in all, I ranked the quality of this debate a 5 out of 10. While I generally agree with Barker's position on the question, "Does God exist?" I was disappointed in some of his performance, and I outright winced hearing some of his responses. However, Barker did raise the standard objections to the claim that God exists, such as the problem of evil.

Friel, however, as the theist, had the burden of providing evidence for the existence of God. As such, he brought two pieces of evidence to the debate, which he repeated several times. First, God created the universe. (And who created God? "Nobody, because then that wouldn't make sense.") Second, we have a conscience. (And what about other religion's adherent's consciences? "They don't count because they aren't worshipping Jesus.") The rest of Friel's content consisted of sermonettes describing God. "He loves you and He died for you and He will send you to Hell if you don't believe all this and He has to have the credit for everything or He gets really peeved." This is as pointless as attempting to prove the existence of Santa Claus by describing his red suit, his magical sleigh and the names of his reindeer. A description of something is not evidence of something.

Friel also resorted to numerous threats in order to sway the audience to his view, and his
double-standard was obvious. The everlasting torture chamber called Hell is reasonable justice for victimless crimes such as blasphemy and disbelief, according to Friel, but if Barker complained about Hell's injustice, then Friel countered he wasn't trying to threaten anyone--and then later he would do exactly that by pleading with the audience that God won't always be patient with us. Either Hell is something to be saved from or it isn't; you can't have it both ways. If we are upset that people who, say, jaywalk should receive the death penalty, then we ought to be equally upset with whoever decided that jaywalkers deserve the death penalty. Friel wants people to be repulsed by Hell, but he doesn't want people to be repulsed by the very God who sends them there. It's irrelevant that God provides an escape clause from his justice--particularly since it involves the bloody torture and death of an innocent man--since if it wasn't for God's primitive and barbaric sense of justice in the first place there would be no need for redemption.

As a result, I have to conclude that Friel lost the debate. There may be a god--the question certainly wasn't settled during this debate--but Friel did not bring a sufficient case.


Prev: Closing Arguments

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Does God Exist? Friel-Barker Debate - Closing Arguments

The debate wound to a close with Closing Statements, Dan Barker first followed by Todd Friel.

"Hell is not reasonable justice," Barker began. He emphasized that we don't treat our children the way we are told that God will treat us. We don't send our children to the gas chamber for their faults, particularly for not flattering our egos. We don't even torture legitimate adult criminals. The punishment should fit the crime.

Barker potentially alienated the room by declaring that Friel's sermons might work for "weak believers." Sin, Barker explained, is an artificial concept invented by the religious. "If salvation is the cure for sin," Barker quipped, "then atheism is the prevention." By not acknowledging certain behaviors as sinful, an atheist has no need to feel guilty for those behaviors. While true, this can be misleading. Both believers and non-believers agree that murder, rape, theft, certain forms of lying, etc. are morally wrong even to the point of requiring punishment. Believers call these actions sins but they also include other strictly religious actions as sins, such as blasphemy and impiety. Naturally, atheism can be seen as a prevention of the second type of sin, not the first. By not emphasizing the difference, Barker left open the possibility that he is advocating licentiousness.

Barker ended his segment deploring Friel's arguments and declared that if Friel honestly believed what he said he did then he was both morally and intellectually bankrupt, a pointless and possibly ad hominem attack on Friel.

Friel ended the Closing Arguments segment with a long emotional appeal and contradicted himself repeatedly. He said he wasn't there to threaten us. He said he wasn't there to scare us of hell, then immediately said that we should be horrified by it. He never addressed Barker's objections that Hell is not reasonable justice or that infinite punishment for finite sins is morally bankrupt. Instead, he focused on his assertion that God has offered to save us from Hell.

According to Friel, God is merely a rescue worker offering to save us from a Hell that God has no control over. And yet again, according to Friel, Hell is real (despite that Friel offers zero evidence that Hell exists), God is not to be "trifled with" (another threat) and that if we are scared of Hell then that's a good thing. This despite the fact that he opened the exchange saying he wasn't there to scare us about Hell. So which is it?

"Lose the presuppositions," Friel pleads. In other words, just believe it. Don't think too much about it, just believe that you're a horrible sinner that offends God with every thought, but God magnanimously stifles his offense to offer us a means to overcome the fact that he's offended by us.

The question under debate was "Does God exist?" It was not, "Does Christianity offer value?" or "What does the Bible say about the human condition?" Barker began the debate refuting Friel's arguments but ended with emotional responses to Friel's dogma. Friel began the debate offering some evidence for the existence of God and ended it with a plaintive altar call to accept his narrow flavor of Christianity: "God should give you Hell but he offers you Heaven and if you will call out to him, he will hear you . . . Think of Jesus Christ dying for you, which will crush your heart and lead you to godly sorrow and repentance." All unproved assertions. What Jesus Christ, a crushed heart, or repentance have to do with the existence of a supernatural deity is left unexplained.


Prev: Barker's Questions

Next: Audience Q&A

Monday, November 3, 2008

Does God Exist? Friel-Barker Debate - Barker Questions

Next came Barker's questions for Friel. Barker's first question was if Friel knew in advance that 9-11 was going to happen and could stop it at no risk to himself, would he do so?

"Of course," Friel said immediately.

"Well," Barker replied, "then you're nicer than God."

Excellent first question from Barker, encapsulating the Problem of Evil. Friel wanted to stop 9-11, but couldn't do so because he's not omniscient nor omnipotent. If God is omniscient and omnipotent but chose not to prevent 9-11, then he's not omni-benevolent and in fact is less benevolent than Friel. But of course, Friel can't agree to that.

"They deserved to die," Friel explained. "God is just, he can do what he pleases, and he is right for doing so because he knows the difference between right and wrong."

This is a stunning admission. 3,000 people were brutally killed on 9-11 because they deserved to die. Friel declares that God deliberately withheld his miraculous power ("he can do what he pleases,") because he wanted them all to die. Why? "Because he knows the difference between right and wrong," Friel explains. Of course, this is a non-answer. According to fundamentalist Christians, everyone knows the difference between right and wrong. After all, it was claiming knowledge of good and evil that got Adam and Eve in trouble in the Garden of Eden, and the Apostle Paul wrote that God's law is written on our hearts so that we are without excuse (Romans 2:15).

So the only difference between God and men is that God can do whatever he wants to us and we can't hold him responsible. And yet, Friel declares that God is "right" for doing so. We see that there is nothing that God can do that Friel would declare to be wrong. Good, bad, or indifferent, if God does something--or not do something, as in the case of 9-11--then we must declare it to be good. This destroys the very concept of good. If everything a being does has to be declared good, then how can we honestly say that being has chosen the right thing to do?

We can't even place blame on the nineteen hijackers because, according to Friel, it was good for their victims to die. Does that mean if any of them survived their attack, we would let them go free? And yet Friel said that if he could, he would have stopped them. But why, if their victims deserved to die and God wouldn't stop them for a good reason? Why would Friel do something that would obviously be counter to the will of God? What does Friel know about right and wrong that God doesn't?

Friel leaps from justifying God's inaction for preventing evil in our world to justifying the existence of Hell. He explains that the victims deserved to die because they were sinful. We all are sinful and have offended an infinite God. Hell is not torture, and it's not punishment, it's reasonable justice. "Are you opposed to jails?" he asks. "Should we just let rapists go free?"

This is absurd. If a man commits a rape, we remove him from society so he won't be a threat. But we don't torture him. We don't set him on fire and keep fanning the flames forever. No one possibly deserves an infinite punishment for a finite crime. By connecting these dots, Friel asserts that the three thousand victims of 9-11 were equivalent to rapists. Yet he doesn't explain why we don't punish these people for their rape ahead of time.

But it's not just rapists and murderers. According to Friel, "all liars will have their place in the Lake of Fire because his goodness demands it." Friel paints his God as a pagan barbaric totalitarian who is only appeased by sacrifice, be it animal or human.

Sometime in the next few minutes, someone, somewhere is going to be brutally murdered, and God won't stop it. Friel will state that that's okay. That person deserved to be murdered because he's so sinful--he's offended an infinite God so no punishment is too much to satisfy him. This is the logical conclusion of Friel's Calvinism and it is an offensive barbarism to me.

Barker, however, failed to highlight any of these natural points. Perhaps he felt that Friel had hung himself with his own rope. Barker missed a wonderful opportunity to expose Friel's contradictory and cruel views about good and evil by focusing on failed prayer. He asked Friel if he would at least admit that "most" of the victims of 9-11 were Christians who had prayed for God's protection and that their prayers failed. Friel refused to take the bait.

"There are three answer God gives," Friel explained. "Yes, No, Something Else." This is the standard answer to the problem of Unanswered Prayer--define any result as an answer. Barker missed another opportunity to highlight the absurdity of this position. A person praying will get the same three results if he makes his prayers to Mount Rushmore. Friel justifies his response by appealing to mystery, claiming that what looks like a bad thing to us is just because of our limited perspective. God sees the whole picture, and can decide that even if we suffer (say, be brutally murdered?) the end result is a good thing. Again, God can do whatever he wants to us, and we have no right to complain because he's smarter than us.

Friel distracts Barker by accusing him of once being a false Christian, deceived by "the modern gospel." This is, of course, a pointless ad hominem attack against Barker. The apostle Paul wrote that "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Barker did both repeatedly for years. He confessed, he believed, and he was a Christian. Nothing else. There's no qualifier that you have to believe until you die or else it wasn't real. This is shifting the goalposts, equivalent to saying that any married couple that gets divorced must not have really been in love to begin with, on the false theory that people in love never get divorced.

If we take Friel's argument to it's logical extreme, then Friel is not a Christian either. Years ago, both Friel and Barker claimed to be Christians. Barker deconverted, and now Friel declares that Barker wasn't really a Christian. Therefore, no one can really be called a Christian unless they live their entire life without deconverting. Since Friel is still alive, he may deconvert from Christianity sometime in the future. Until he dies without deconverting, we can't honestly call him a Christian. Barker said the same thing: "If I wasn't a real Christian, then no one is."

Of course, Friel would vehemently deny that he's not a Christian, suggesting that once again that he holds himself as the Absolute Standard. He's a Christian, and he decides who is and is not a Christian.

Barker continued the questioning about evil, further highlighting Friel's odd views: "Why did God create evil?"

At first, Friel understood that Barker was quoting Isaiah 45:7: "I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things." But he denied that was the true meaning of the verse by illustrating that since cold is the absence of heat and darkness is the absence of light, therefore evil is merely the absence of good, so God can't be considered to have actually created a thing called evil. Barker countered that the Hebrew word for create was the same as what was used in Genesis when God created the earth. Friel relented by quickly agreeing that it was the same word.

So with that admission, Friel announced that God created evil. He went on to state that the fact that God created evil didn't bother him. We might see a situation (loss of a job, death of a child, etc) and call it a bad thing, Friel explained, but God says, 'I'm just, I'm righteous, I'm in control' and God causes that evil to happen for his eternal glory. Ultimately, he continues, it doesn't matter if there is evil in this world because after a future judgement day, there will be a healing and no more evil.

Again, this paints a horrible picture of Friel's God. God allows evil in the world--he created it to begin with--and if we suffer that's okay because God will look good sometime in the distant future when he fixes it. This would be akin to a doctor releasing a virus that he developed into a city, causing death and suffering to countless people, all for the purpose of receiving praise and accolades when he later distributes the vaccine. We would have no words strong enough to condemn anyone who did such a thing, but for God we are asked to call him just and righteous.

This is the description that Friel gave of God. Very few Christians that I know of would agree with this barbarism, but its the God that Friel preached, and there was healthy applause from the audience after making these claims.

I was very disappointed, therefore, when Barker let this opportunity go by unchallenged. Friel's answer to the question, "Why did God create evil," was "Because he'll get the credit for fixing it." Barker decided, however, to move into more philisophical realms by asking a question about falsifiablity. After much stumbling--which must have been slightly embarassing for Barker . . . Friel felt badly enough for him he actually had to help Barker phrase the question--Barker asked, "Which statement, if true, would falsify your hypothesis (that God exists)?"

After some more confusion between the two parties, Friel finally settled on the statement that if the universe didn't exist, then God does not exist.

"So," Barker clarified, "if nothingness existed, there would be no god."

"It would be a start," Friel replied. "God's proof is creation. We're here, so we had to come from somewhere."

Here Barker lost another perfect opportunity. If Friel is correct, then he would have to admit that before the universe existed God did not exist, and if God did not exist then he could not have created the universe. The universe exists, therefore God could not have created it.

But Barker didn't point that out. When Friel said the universe had to come from somewhere, Barker merely asked, "Why?" All this did was allow Friel to set Barker up as an anal post-modern philosopher, asking such questions as 'How do we know we really exist?' A much simpler answer would have been to point out the absurdity of saying the universe had to "come from" somewhere. This implies that there exists a type of warehouse of universe parts, and that God selected the parts he wanted and used them to create the universe. Of course, if the universe came "from" somewhere, then that implies a place and time, which by definition could not exist before the universe existed. Just like we can't travel any further south than the South Pole, the universe can't exist in a time and place before the universe existed. It's a meaningless statement. If the Creationist imagines God existing alone somewhere and then deciding to create a universe and then thinking how to create the universe and then speaking the universe into existence, this implies a sequence of events in time before time existed.

Barker redeemed himself slightly by pointing out that if the universe must have come from somewhere then so must God. Where did God come from?

Friel finished out the debate by explaining that it was a fair question. However, according to Friel, if time exists, then something must be eternal because otherwise we could ask who created God, and then who created that God, and who created that God, ad infinitum. This is an excellent point, and I'm not sure why Friel made it because it undermines his very argument. Friel understands the problem of infinite regress, and he solves it by declaring that it doesn't count in his case. He rejects Barker's argument that the universe is eternal by saying the universe had to have been created by someone, but he claims that God doesn't suffer from the same constraint because then we'd have a logical fallacy. He solves the fallacy by declaring the fallacy doesn't exist.


Prev: Friel's Questions

Next: Closing Arguments