Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"I don't have the facts, but I just know it!"

Rachel Maddow asks Alaskans why they are supporting Joe Miller:

Supporter A: Because Eric Holder is anti-gun.
RM: What's he done against guns?
Supporter A: Wuh . . . what hasn't he done against guns? Look at his voting record!
RM: He wasn't an elected official.
Supporter A: <Blank stare> . . . just look at his record--
RM: What's he done on guns that you're upset about?
Supporter A: <Blank stare . . . think, man, think!> I honestly don't know enough to answer that question.

Supporter B: Eric Holder is anti-gun!
RM: What has he done that's anti-gun?
Supporter B: I don't have all the facts, but I know that he is.

Supporter A: Just look at his press releases.
RM: Which ones?
Supporter A: Just . . . just Google "Eric Holder" and "2nd amendment."

Then Supporter C chimes in:

Supporter C: Black Panthers!

"This is the world that Fox News has created."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Danielle Bean: Faith is More Reasonier than Reason

Danielle Bean, "Catholic author" writes in the On Faith blog that she's upset that atheists are using Jon Stewart's D.C. rally to promote reason.  This is unacceptable, writes Bean:
Atheists would have you believe that science is opposed to faith, but real science is not only unopposed to faith -- real scientific study leads us to God.

For proof, she cites Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, who stated that "From a knowledge of God's work we shall know Him." Congratulations to Ms. Bean on finding a seventeenth-century scientist who also believed in God. She doesn't cite any other scientist who doesn't believe in God, or who does not feel that the best way to know about the universe is to apply faith, but that might detract readers from her main point.

I am not sure just how atheists have managed to secure exclusive rights to use of the word "reason."

Well, no one ever said that atheists want "exclusive" rights, but freethinkers do argue that reason is superior to faith when obtaining information. Sure, what we learn by faith might be true, but the only way to know for sure is to A) use reason, or B) use more faith. Martin Luther called Reason "the Devil's greatest whore," but I suppose the Catholic Ms. Bean might not know what the Father of the Protestant movement would say.

Ms. Bean goes on to erect a cartoon-version of the modern scientific method:
There is nothing at all reasonable about believing that the universe is a colossal accident....Believing that the human body is a haphazard collision of cells and that the earth is randomly placed in space, at precisely the correct distance from the sun for supporting life is as reasonable as expecting a roomful of monkeys with typewriters to turn out the next great literary masterpiece.

Of course, no non-theistic cosmologist describes the origins of the universe as an accident, and no biologist calls a human being a haphazard collision of cells. She also grossly exaggerates the range of our Sun's Habitable Zone and Earth's special place in it. Not because, as I suspect, that she's had extensive scientific training, but because apologists have told her so, as I have written about before.

Anti-faith personalities like Jon Stewart and Richard Dawkins might think that they have all the answers, but real believers know that only God does. And He's not invited to the mall this weekend.

Ms. Bean seems confused. The Jon Stewart rally is not intended to be a backlash against faith in general, but a response to the Glenn Beck rally of right-wing conservatism and fear-mongering. That atheists are taking an opportunity to protest against the Religious Right and their "faith-based" politicking is not because we have all the answers. We don't, but we don't plaster faith into our gaps of knowledge and then hug ourselves because we're so special in the eyes of God.

Simply put, faith is an unreliable means of obtaining knowledge. As the saying goes, Faith is No Reason.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Debate: Is Christianity Rational?

I enjoyed listening to a debate on October 7th, 2010 between Jeremy Beahan (of Reasonable Doubts podcast) and Christian apologist Cliff Knechtle.  The topic was "Is Christianity Rational?"

Overall, I found Beahan's performance to be far superior to Knechtle.  Beahan calmly stated his case without emotional appeals, unlike Knechtle who spoke with the punctuated emphasis like a Baptist preacher, and who appealed to emotion more and more as the debate went on.  Beahan managed his allotted time much better, even ending his remarks before his time was up, whereas Knechtle continually went over time and had to be prodded by the moderator to finish his comments.  But that's about the performance, and one aspect of debates is that they are largely theater and oratory.

As for the content, Knechtle brought nothing new to the table that I haven't heard for decades from the likes of Josh McDowell and (to a lesser degree) Kent Hovind: God exists because we can see Design; Jesus really rose from the dead because we have eyewitness testimony; without God we can't have morality.  These are old, tired arguments that have been debunked countless times, some of them for millennia (ie, Euthyphro's Dilemma, Epicurus' God and Evil.)

Whereas Beahan's content was largely unoriginal, although he can't be blamed for that.  When an old rebuttal works against an old argument, there's little need to update the rebuttal.  In fact, the area where Beahan interjected new material was where he stumbled the most.  In response to Knechtle's Anthropic Principle as evidence that God favors humanity (by positioning Earth in such a choice location in the universe), Beahan responded by noting that the newly discovered planet orbiting Gliese 581 in that star's habitable zone.  Beahan asserted too much about that planet, stating that we know much about it's composition and rotation, when in reality almost nothing is known about the planet.  Beahan argued that with this planet capable of supporting life, therefore the universe is benign to life and the anthropric principle is too solipstic to take seriously.  But we're a long way from knowing much more about distant planets, and there are plenty of candidates in our own solar system for potential life (Mars, Europa, Titan, etc.)

All in all, Beahan handled himself well, did not preach, and did not resort to emotional appeals, compared to Knechtle, whom I found disappointing and irritating.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Free Will in Heaven

I've been involved in a long discusson online with an apologetic Christian. I can't precisely define why I do so--there's almost zero chance that either one of us is going to change our position, and the board is peopled primarily with atheists and agnostics, so I can't even count on planting seeds in lurkers' minds. But I still think it's fun.

Like most online discussions, the topic drifts--nature of the beast. You start off talking about last night's episode of Glee, and before long you've covered the viability of a crewed mission to Mars, Baltic state economics, and why do your fingers feel funny when you break off a nail?

In this case, the apologist--whom I'll call Sam--found himself trapped in a corner defending why God doesn't do more to make absolutely clear that he exists and that we'd better pay close attention to what he has to say to us. Of course, he hauled out that old chestnut, "God doesn't want robots." The idea being, God wants us to love him freely, not under compulsion or because it's patently obvious that he exists. For some reason, our love is worth more if there's a chance that we're just spitting in the wind. There has to be risk, after all, or else it's cheap.

While on the surface that might sound good, I wouldn't want to enter into a human relationship on those terms. I wouldn't want to be standing at the altar, watching my bride come down the aisle, and think to myself, "I wonder if she *really* loves me. This whole thing could be just a setup."

Anyway, back to God not wanting robots. Conceivably, God could make things much easier if he just programmed us to always obey, to love him on faith, and to never commit a sin, but according to Sam, that would be bad. Parents prefer children, not robots, so we have to have the freedom to reject God. Of course, anyone who says that has never seen someone on their hands and knees gently encouraging her roomba to get itself unstuck from under the dining room table.

I then asked Sam a question, which drifted the thread in another direction: "Will believers have free will in Heaven?"

It's a simple yes-or-no question, but oh my the backflips Sam went through to avoid the implications. Here's the situation as I see it:

If the answer is No, future residents will not have free will in Heaven, then conceivably Heaven will remain a sinless existence forever, as we've been promised. But that wouldn't work, because then we would be the very robots that Sam asserts would be so bad here on Earth. You would have a hard time convincing anyone that its bad to be a robot for eighty years, but good to be a robot for eighty trillion years (and counting).

If the answer is Yes, Heaven's citizenry will indeed have free will, then it seems all but certain that Heaven will eventually descend into the sinful hellhole that is Earth. Of course, when I call Earth a sinful hellhole, I am employing the perspective of the evangelical Christian, not my own. Sin is a religious construct created to coerce and control believers. For some, the very existence of say, homosexuals, or rock music, or even hatless women in church is one more sign of the depravity to which this world has fallen simply because some guy and his wife ate a piece of fruit. That doesn't mean that, from my non-religious perspective, there is no injustice in this world, of course. But from the point of view of evangelical conservative creationist Christians, the existence in our world of cancer, thistles, even entropy itself, is all due to one man (Adam) who used his free will to disobey God.

So it stands to reason that, if two free-willed human beings living in Paradise can't keep from mucking things up for everyone, what possible chance will there be that the same thing won't happen with the millions of believers in Heaven? Sooner or later, someone's bound to do their own thing, and if Earth is any example, the rest of Heaven's residents will have to suffer the consequences. Except in Heaven's case, it will be infintely worse, since no one will die, putting their sinfulness to an end. It's one thing to live in a world in which Hitler is able to do his worst; imagine him letting loose forever.

Sam, of course, objected to this line of reasoning mightily. Even though I asked a Yes/No question--"Will believers have free will in Heaven?"--he couldn't just leave it at that. His first loophole was that the reason Adam and Eve used their free will for evil was because Satan was tempting them. Satan won't be in Heaven after the Rapture and Tribulation and all that, so it won't be a problem. Heaven will only be populated by people who have complete free will but never choose evil--they will WANT to be there, and they won't possibly WANT to sin.

Naturally, I had problems with that answer. First off, Genesis doesn't record that it was Satan in the Garden of Eden talking to Eve--it was merely a serpent. A walking, talking serpent. Taking this passage at face value (as evangelicals constantly urge us to do) Satan isn't anywhere on the scene. Christians have deduced that Satan took the form of the serpent in order to mess around with Jehovah's biology experiment. I suppose that's entirely possible when dealing with myth and allegory. But it makes God's curse on the Serpent for sticking his blunt nose where its not wanted a little tepid. Jehovah curses the serpent that he can't walk around anymore but has to crawl on his belly. And that should be a problem for an interdimensional being that can assume the shape of a non-existent animal--how? What happened, the serpent slithered away, then poofed to wherever Satan lives as he's waiting for Armageddon to spin up? You call that a curse?

Anyway, I didn't bring that up to Sam, because that was a side issue--the problems of taking myths literally--and not germane to the discussion. In response to Sam's defense of No Satan, No Sin, I came back with a two-pronged response. First, if Satan tempts others to sin, who tempted Satan to sin? According to the story gleaned out of The Book of Revelations, Ezekiel, but mostly Paradise Lost, Lucifer was the most perfect angel living in Heaven before God created the universe. Lucifer decided after who knows how long that he's tired of being number two, and so he convinces one-third of all the angels in Heaven to rebel against God. This results in a war in Heaven, which Lucifer naturally loses. He and his army are tossed out of Heaven; Lucifer takes on the name of Satan, the angels become demons, and they plan their next escapade to be launched from--well, wherever it is that's not Heaven and not Earth. I suppose it could be Hell, but it can't be all that bad if Satan is then free to play dice with God over the fate of Job, and to have philisophical discussions with Jesus in the wilderness. At any rate, Lucifer was a free-willed angel with no Satan around to tempt him to choose evil, and yet he chose evil. So why won't future Heaven residents do the same?

The second prong of my response to Sam's explanation of Satan, is that if all it takes to make a paradise with free-willed humans living in perfect harmony and no sin is for Satan to be removed from the picture, then why didn't God remove Satan from the Garden of Eden? Why did God allow Satan access in the form of a walking serpent or whatever in the first place? Already in history (and given the mythology, I use 'history' in the loosest sense of the word) we've had two scenarios in which perfect beings with free will chose to commit sin, so what's to keep the same thing from happening in the future?

In a nutshell, what can God do in Heaven that he can't do on Earth? If there really is some third answer to my Yes/No question, if there really is some way that God can set things up so that people can be not robots, and can have the ability to choose evil but never ever ever do so, then why didn't God just create that situation to begin with? Why did God make Earth, let humans muck it up with sin, kill himself so that a select few can end up in Heaven where everything is perfect forever, when he could have skipped several painful steps and just created people in Heaven?  That way, no one has to die, and even more importantly no one has to live in Hell forever because they didn't or wouldn't love an invisible God without hesitation. Wouldn't that have been the wiser choice, the more compassionate option, the more humane decision?

Those who stump for Heaven strike me as retirement village salespeople. They have a brochure that spells out how wonderful the amenities of your future retirement home will be, how you'll never want for anything, how you'll earn your life's reward wrapped in luxury and comfort. All you have to do is start making payments toward your future condo today, and keep making payments every month and every year until you retire. But no, you can't visit the village yet--only retirees are allowed inside the gated community. And you'll find no shortage of glowing endorsements from people who are already in the process of making their payments about how much they are looking forward to their future life of ease, but frustratingly, no one has ever seemed to be able to report from the inside. No one who actually lives there right now can tell you what it's like inside. In fact, and this is a little bit creepy, once a person checks into his retirement condo, he's never heard from again!

What further complicates the issue is that the architect of these retirement villages--the one who built them from the ground up, and who will be taking your monthly payments and using it to stock your spot with amenities--that guy turns out to be the same guy who built your house! And as you know perfectly well, your house sucks! It was built with shoddy construction techniques, fails electrical code in such a way that if you aren't always careful, you could kill yourself just turning on a light switch. Your house is drafty, leaks, has a suspicious-looking mold in several corners, and is infested with vermin. In fact, your dissatisfaction with your house is the biggest reason why you're even considering plunking down the cold cash for a spot in the retirement village in the first place--you can hardly wait to live in a home where the plumbing actually works as its supposed to.

So if the same builder who screwed up your house so badly is the guy in charge of your final destination, wouldn't you find that a little disquieting? If he couldn't build a decent house, what makes him qualified to build a decent retirement condo?

Oh, don't worry, says the salesman, the guy convincing you to get out your checkbook and sign the paperwork. There's a perfectly good reason why the builder wasn't able to build your home to perfect satisfaction--it's all the brother-in-law's fault. You see, the builder has this brother-in-law . . . . doesn't everybody? . . . who kept hanging around the building site when your home was being constructed. It was that guy--not the builder--who messed everything up. That guy was the one distracting the contstruction crew, and stealing tools, and swapping Grade A lumber with inferior grade particle board. If your house isn't satisfactory, then you can blame the brother-in-law. But he's not allowed on the construction site of your retirement village. Therefore, you can be certain that your retirement condo will be absolutely perfect, just like your home would have been if the brother-in-law hadn't been allowed to hang around. How many bedrooms can we put you down for?

Pastor arrested on 11 sexual abuse charges

Yet another case of a Protestant minister involved in sexual abuse:
The new charges involve two teen boys who said McCurdy forced them into sexual relationships with him. They told police he used his position in the church and Bible scriptures to force them into sex acts, authorities said.
I'm reminded of Voltaire: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Quote of the day

A Christian has to be Adolf Hitler to be called militant.  All an atheist has to do is write a book.

(With apologies to Marlo Thomas.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Religion: Metaphor or Fog?

Daniel Dennett responds to the Pew survey that finds that atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religions than even the religions' own adherents.
After Copernicus and the collapse of the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth, the idea that Heaven was Up There and Hell was Down Below had to be turned into metaphor. It is still potent imagery after several centuries, but it is treated as literally true by, well, hardly anybody.

So with the increase of scientific understanding and textual criticism undermining the major religions' key tenets, what's a religion to do?
There are two main tactics.

Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.

Plan B: Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone's creed - not even your own.

Plan B has been the choice of most religions and denominations, and the result, not surprisingly, is that most religiously affiliated people have no firm knowledge or even opinions about the finer points of any religion, including their own.

In a nutshell, the more you know, the less you need to believe by faith, and thus, the less you actually do believe by faith.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hey Baby, go to Hell.

If, per the Protestant doctrine, salvation can't be inherited, but must be freely chosen, then inevitably one might ask, "What about babies?"

Catholics solve the problem by baptizing their infants, thus assuring that the child will be granted status in heaven no matter when they die.  Protestants however reject that notion, but from there they part ways.

Arminian theology teaches something called "The Age of Accountability," the period when a person becomes mature enough in God's eyes to accept salvation.  That age is different for everyone, but, according to the doctrine, once you've passed that age, you don't have any more excuse.  Live just one more day and don't ask Jesus into your heart, and it's off to Hell with you.

Calvinism, on the other hand, takes a more literal view.  There's no mention of the Age of Accountability in the Bible; ergo, there is no such thing.  All that matter is if the person freely accepts salvation.  If you don't ask for forgiveness--even if you can't--then you go to Hell.  That means that the mentally incapacitated, the infants, even the fetuses that spontaneously abort without the woman even realizing she was pregnant--all of them are carted off to the Lake of Fire, because they died in their sins.  They were corrupt due to their sinful nature received at conception, and their corruption has disqualified them from any mercy in God's sight. 

Like it or not,  according to Calvinist K. B. Napier, babies are screaming in Hell, and that's a good thing:
Election says that God foreordained before the world was made (in eternity) those who would be saved. All others are foreordained to destruction, whether they are in the womb or out of it, and at any age. We might not like it, and we cannot reconcile it with our heart’s desire, but it is nevertheless a fact of God’s word.

Calvinism is a monstrous doctrine.

Monday, October 4, 2010

John Mark Reynolds: "Atheists; Mere Kings of Trivia"

Much has been made about the Pew Forum survey released last week announcing that atheists and agnostics score higher on religious knowledge than mainstream religious believers. Of course, this was trumpeted far and wide by non-believers of all persuasions, particularly since religious apologists accuse atheists of not understanding the religions they criticize. No, we atheists understand faith-based religion just fine; that's why we aren't religious.

And as you would expect, the responses from religious believers to the survey was equally heated. Was it to apologize for assuming that atheists and agnostics are uninformed about religion? Did they express surprise that, for example, the majority of religious believers didn't know that Mother Teresa was Catholic. Did anyone commit to bridging the divide between believers and non-believers by engaging in meaningful dialogue and understanding?

No, mostly they just continued the atheist bashing.

The majority of responses I've seen ran along the lines of, "Sure, you atheists might know a lot about religious doctrine, but you don't really know anything about religion because you haven't spent years in prayer and meditation. Like I have." This complaining about head knowledge versus heart knowledge is jealousy, and P.Z. Myers Courtier's Reply says it all.

The most amusing response has to be from John Mark Reynolds, philosophy professor at Biola, writing for the On Faith blog, who writes:
As a boutique belief system in the United States, atheism has a good many advantages. There are so few atheists and agnostics that they do not run all the risks of a populist movement.

Get that? Suddenly it's an advantage to be small in numbers. This is, of course, just silly. There are more non-believers in America than there are Jews, or Muslims, or most other religious groups other than Christians and their spin-offs (Mormons, etc.) and yet non-believers scored higher than all of those other groups as well. So why are non-believers so knowledgeable about religion?
Not for [atheists] is the burden of dealing with the masses of a global population, their idiosyncrasies, worries and all. Since Christians make up three-quarters or more of the American general population, we have the burden of accounting for almost everybody's problems.

Poor Christians. They have to spend so much time serving in soup kitchens and cleaning bed pans in AIDS shelters that they just don't have the time to learn that Martin Luther is the founder of the Protestantism.

Reynolds continues the rant against atheists by dissing the music of Dan Barker, of all things, and by accusing us of moving to gated enclaves where the only believers allowed inside are the help.

There's a name for people like Reynolds, one that everyone knows but that no one likes to be called--"Sore Loser."