Monday, February 28, 2011

Freedom is Wonderful, but Only for Me

Fred Clark of Slacktivist responds to the Southern Baptist hierarch spokesman Richard Land's complaints that certain judges or administration officials may make rulings that are "against the will of the people."  Clark writes:
Implicit in this is a notion of democracy that we've encountered again and again among American evangelical Christians attempting to engage in politics. It is the idea that democracy means everything is subject to the will of the majority -- including the rights of minorities, which therefore aren't rights at all, merely privileges permitted or withheld by the sentiment of the majority. It is, bluntly, the idea that democracy is just a fancy word for mob rule.

We see this in things like the absurd annual ritual of the so-called "war on Christmas" and in a thousand similar obsessive resentments of imagined offenses. We see it in the ugliness of the anti-mosque movement. We see this in the fear that equality under the law for GLBT people will somehow constitute an infringement of the religious liberty of those who regard homosexuality as a sin (this despite the hard-to-miss fact that Fred Phelps remains free to say whatever vile things he wishes, whenever and wherever he wishes). We see it in the aggressive sectarian impulse to piss on trees and mark territory by erecting officially sanctioned sectarian holiday displays or Ten Commandments plaques or official prayers and other ostentations of sectarian allegiance.

Would that every Christian believer understand the difference between the rule of law, and the rule of the mob.

Friday, February 25, 2011

One Picture, 1,000 words

From Indexed

Episode 13 - Clarence Darrow - Why Agnosticism?

This episode of Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind features Clarence Darrow, American lawyer and civil libertarian. He is best well known for defending John Scopes in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Today's excerpt comes from his collection of essays called "Why I Am An Agnostic."

You can subscribe in iTunes or download directly here.

I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

NZ Quake blamed on homosexuals

After every natural disaster, there never fails to emerge someone to declare that the deaths and destruction were sent by God as punishment, always against those whom the speaker doesn't like.  The recent earthquake in New Zealand is no exception.

At Christchurch Earthquake, the unnamed writer blames the February 22nd quake on homosexuals:

To the hundreds of thousands of people who suffered because of the Christchurch earthquake: Ask yourselves: "Was the profit from meals, accomodation and transport from 900 poofters and lesbians attending "Gay Ski Week" worth the $4 billion damage, worth the homes destroyed? Was it worth going to sleep night after night not knowing if the roof will come down on you by morning?" Chris Carter and Helen Clark's government got what they wanted -- 12 year olds on the streets as prostitutes, overseas trips, expensive liquor and credit card junkets, lesbians running loose on the South Island as if they own the place. But, looking at your ruined homes, at all the historic buildings destroyed, ask yourselves, "Did we get what we wanted in all this destruction?"

Let's step back and take a look at this line of argument. The writer is saying that God looked down on New Zealand and saw some people doing something he doesn't like. So he waves his fingers and causes a disaster, killing several people, but not necessarily the ones performing the hated behavior. God then relies on some other person to pronounce to the masses what the disaster really means. If there is a more error-prone method of conveying your desires, I don't know of any. Would any non-godlike person behave this way?

Suppose a man is hired as a security guard of an apartment building, and he learns that one of the tenants is behaving "immorally." Maybe the guy in 3-B is watching pornography, whatever. The guard then goes to the basement and lights some oily rags on fire, burning down the entire building, killing seven people--except the guy in 3-B! He gets away safely. Then the security guard's friends saunters along and tells the survivors, "If you hadn't allowed one of your own to watch porn, none of this would have happened. Are you happy now?!"

In what world would punishment like this make sense? If the author of this website is correct in that God really, really, hates homosexuals, then wouldn't it make more sense for God to punish the homosexual? Wouldn't it be more effective if, say, everytime two guys have sex with each other, their hearts immediately stop? If everytime a woman said for the first time, "I'm a lesbian" she fell over dead, wouldn't that do more to end homosexuality than just randomly sweeping buildings down in an earthquake sometime in the same year as a gay public event takes place?

Of course, when believers are harmed by natural disasters, then it's "God works in mysterious ways," and "God needed more angels so he called them home," and "God tests us with pain so that we don't become accustomed to this world."

For the New Zealand families grieving over their loss of loved ones, the author of this website owes them an extreme apology

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Wikipedia Editor's view of the Bible

At the Secular Web Kiosk, a Wikipedia editor named Michael Young compares his experiences with editing the world's largest online reference to what must have occurred during the editing of the Bible:
With modern technology you can follow every step of the editing process. A feature of Wikipedia is that there is a document history tab at the top of every page where you can see the time and nature of every edit, and compare differences between different versions, and see evidence of all the things I talk about in this article in action. You can easily compare an article with what it said three weeks ago, and see what is changed. Unfortunately such things are not available for the Bible, but careful detective work can show where and how the edits have happened, and thus explain some of the Bible's more mysterious passages.

Young speculates on the contradictions in Genesis and other places on the grounds that "it is easier to add than take away." Advocates of a certain viewpoint add their bit, and the editor can't remove one or the other without feeling heat. In Wikipedia this comes out as "On one hand...on the other hand..." type of edits, but that's too anemic for the Word of God. So the biblical editor shrugs his shoulders and throws both viewpoints in.

Young makes one or two technical errors, but overall the article is enlightening.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Episode 12 - Dan Barker - Purpose Of Life

This episode of Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind features Dan Barker, former minister and outspoken Atheist advocate in America. He is the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an American Freethought organization promoting the separation of church and state. Today's passage comes from his book called "Godless" in which Barker explains his views about life's purpose.

You can subscribe in iTunes by searching Podcasts for "Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind" or download it directly here.

I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

No Such Thing as Atheists?

In Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs writes an open letter to "my dear atheist friend."  And then he says,
The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true atheists.

(Your sighs here.)

Should we be concerned that someone calls his friend an atheist, then denies that there is such a thing as an atheist? So what is Jacobs justification for this?
It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is no God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe - seen and unseen - and I don't think any of you guys are ready to make that claim.

Same old fallacy, arguing that atheists make positive claims, when in fact atheists merely disbelieve the positive claims of theists.
You will counter that definitively proving the existence of God on purely rational grounds is similarly impossible, which, for the sake of argument, I will concede.

So I guess there really are no true theists, if Jacobs' argument is taken seriously.

Given this, your assumption of the title, "atheist" isn't so much a statement of fact as it is a statement of principle, or intent -- a nom de guerre.

Too wordy; let me help. The title 'atheist' is a statement of belief.

To define oneself as simply agnostic (which I believe you truly are) sounds unsatisfingly wishy-washy and degrades your ability to take a firm stand against deism, in its various forms.

As if one could not be both an atheist and an agnostic. And I'd wager that Robert G. Ingersoll, who called himself the Great Agnostic, would be surprised to hear that he never took a firm stand against deism.

While this is certainly understandable, I suspect that you have traded accuracy for titular intensity.

How about asking some atheists, Rabbi Jacobs, rather than speculating on our inner motivations and risking looking foolish?

So reading further, Jacobs surprised me:
Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective.

Unless he was one of Richard Dawkins' "Used to Be's," But didn't he earlier say that there are no such things as atheists?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Episode 11 - Bertrand Russell - Skeptical Essays

This episode of Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind features Bertrand Russell, British philospher and mathematician. Today's passage is an excerpt from a piece called "On the Value of Skepticism," which served as the Introduction to his book called "Skeptical Essays."

You can get the podcast directly from here or download it in iTunes.

I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

R. Albert Mohler: Evolution Makes Atheists

R. Albert Mohler, commentator for the Christian Post, explores the so-called "New Atheists" and explains for his readers how Darwin's theory of Natural Selection has led directly to the up-front-and-center status of famous atheists, specifically Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, etc.

Atheism has appeared in some form in Western cultures since the midpoint of the last millennium. The word “atheist” did not even exist within the English language until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

While this is true, it's misleading. "Atheism" has been in use in Ancient Greece since at least the fifth century BCE, and the English word atheism was derived from the French word athéisme. Mohler makes it sound that no one had ever heard of the word atheism until the sixteenth century, but by the same token, the words theism and deism didn't enter the English language until the seventeenth century. Should we conclude that theism--the belief in God--is a relatively modern concept? That no one believed in God until the 1600s?

The word “atheist” did not even exist within the English language until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The earliest atheists were most often philosophical and theological skeptics who denied the existence of any personal God. Nevertheless, the God they almost always rejected is the God of the Bible – in other words, a specific rejection of Christianity.

I'm not sure of Mohler's point here, assuming that it's even true--how many other religions were prevalent in Elizabethan England? Is Mohler suggesting that atheists are merely Christian bashers?

Mohler continues by noting that early atheists failed to gain intellectual ground because they don't have a Creation Mythos:

As even the ancient Greeks understood, one of the most fundamental philosophical questions is this: Why is there something, rather than nothing? Every worldview is accountable to that question. In other words, every philosophy of life must offer some account of how we and the world around us came to be.

They must? I'm not sure how that is enforced. At any rate, I agree that it appears to be universal to wonder about our origins. However, that some thinkers were forced to honestly conclude "I don't know" does not mean their other ideas must inherently be wrong, as Mohler implies. When a jury fails to convict a murder defendant due to the prosecution's weak case, it is not required for the jury to provide an alternative suspect.

What Mohler and many religious defenders don't understand is that atheism is a response. It is the second-half of a two-part dialogue. When someone makes a claim and can provide no evidence for it--or bad evidence--all anyone else need do is evaluate the claim and either believe or disbelieve. It is not necessary for that person to then come up with an alternative claim that is equally satisfactory to all concerned. The claims--whether they are about the existence of ghosts, of God, or of the efficacy of homeopathy--should stand on their own, not be immune to criticism until some other claim can be safely erected in their place. Bad ideas should be purged at once, regardless if there are no other alternatives.

Next Mohler attributes the rise of atheism to Darwin's influence, and makes much of Dawkin's remarks that evolution allows atheists to be "intellectually fulfilled":

Prior to the development of the theory of evolution, there was no way for an atheist to settle on any clear argument for why the cosmos exists or why life forms appeared. Darwin changed all that. The development of Darwinian evolution offered atheism an invaluable intellectual tool – an account of beginnings.

Mohler is confused. Evolution has nothing to say about the origins of the universe, the sun, the planets, or of life on Earth. Those are all topics of other scientific disciplines, and isn't it interesting that they all independently point to the same conclusions, whereas if you ask three religious people about the nature of God you get six answers. All that Evolution by Natural Selection attempts to explain is the diversity of living species on this earth. That this explanation runs counter to Genesis is not the fault of the evolutionary scientists nor the atheists who accept their theories.

The New Atheists have emerged as potent public voices. They write best-selling books, appear on major college and university campuses, and extend their voices through institutional and cultural influence. The movement is new in the sense that it differs from the older atheism in several respects, and one of these is the use of science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular, as intellectual leverage against belief in God.

Much in the same way that modern astronomers differ from their older, medieval astronomer counterparts by using the latest scientific tools which provide more accurate results. Mohler uses the products of modern science (computers, electricity, the internet) to criticize other people for doing the same thing.

Daniel Dennett, another of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism, has argued that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a “universal acid” that will burn away all claims of the existence of God.

This is a deliberate misquote. The "universal acid" comment comes from Dennett's book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" where Dennett writes that evolution "eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” For an example of this "revolutionized world-view" compare a modern-day Theistic Evolutionist such as Michael Francis Collins** or countless other Christian believers--who believe that God's finest tool of Creation is Natural Selection--with a eighteenth-century uneducated Christian farmer. Both believe the same thing--"God created the Heavens and the Earth"--but the latter former* also accepts that perhaps bronze-age Biblical authors didn't have quite the understanding of reality as we do today, and that therefore our expression of our "Creation Myths" could perhaps stand some tweaking.

The New Atheists would have no coherent worldview without the Dogma of Darwinism. With it, they intend to malign belief in God and to marginalize Christians and Christian arguments. Thus, we can draw a straight line from the emergence of evolutionary theory to the resurgence of atheism in our times. Never underestimate the power of a bad idea.

How curious that Mohler doesn't spend one word explaining why evolution is a bad idea. It leads people away from simple-minded dogmatic belief in God, so it must be evil, and anyone who likes evolution must be just as evil--which would be a curious idea to the millions of Christians who have no problem accepting the major tenets of evolution, even if they disagree whose hands are at the wheel. Mohler would prefer that his readers close their minds, open their Bibles, and believe what they're told.

* Mistaken modifier.
** Wrong name.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Episode 10 - Joseph L. Lewis - What Difference?

This episode of Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind features Joseph L. Lewis, American publisher and the president of the Freethinkers of America. This passage is the opening section of his book called An Atheist Manifesto.

You can get the podcast directly from here or download it in iTunes.

I hope you enjoy it.