toxic thought waste site

Theological whimsy, metaphysical larks, and other spiritually radioactive waste products.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Infidel Links - 2007-04-29

Mr Bean, welcomes you to hell

And the winner of the least-vigorous-defender-of-theism award goes to: Bill O'Reilly

Christian kids seem so well behaved, the Rastafarian's kids seem so mellow and the Pastafarians seems so well fed

Dammit! Turkey beat us again

Learn to swear like a Bible prophet

But Hitler was evil, he must have been atheist


The "God Machine"

Militant atheism call to arms by pastor Dawkins

I'm pretty sure there is no belief I wouldn't cheerfully renounce under the threat of molten metal

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Guest Book Review: Darwin on Trial

A friend of mine who is a PhD in microbiology recently read "Darwin On Trial" and he was kind enough to write a review about it. This book was recommended to me as one of the best critiques of evolutionary theory. Let's see if a practicing scientist agrees:

Darwin on Trial

Phillip E. Johnson’s “Darwin on Trial” attempts to show that the concept of evolution based on natural selection is not a true scientific theory, as it is based on logical deduction rather than demonstrated empirically by the scientific method. In addition, he attempts to show that the logical deductions are based on evidence, such as the fossil record, that fail to provide proof of gradual evolution of organisms over time. Superficially, this appears sensible, but the author is making demands of science that are impossible, and then denouncing the theory of evolution once he has shown that these demands cannot be met.

One example cited by the author is the inability of scientists to demonstrate in the laboratory that one species can diverge and give rise to two distinct, non-interbreeding species. Based on what is known about speciation, this may require hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. It is not expected that laboratory experiments are going to produce speciation events. Another example is given for animal breeders, who have been selectively breeding animals for centuries, yet still have not been able to produce a speciation event. A few centuries of selective breeding are not expected to give rise to a speciation event, and breeders obviously have not had the goal of speciation in mind in the first place. It is these types of impossible experimental demands that Johnson uses throughout the book to demonstrate that Darwinian evolution cannot be proven or falsified. The reality is that these types of experiments cannot be performed because all aspects of nature cannot be captured in a laboratory setting. These are insufficient grounds for denouncing the theory of evolution.

There are many scientific fields that rely upon logical deduction to support a given theory. Evolution is but one. Plate tectonics is a scientific theory of geology that has been developed to explain the observed evidence that the Earth’s lithosphere has undergone large scale motions over time. Like evolution, the theory is based on evidence discovered by geologists, and because of the scale and time constraints of the phenomena in question, cannot be tested in the laboratory. Science does not have the means of recreating a planet, and as such, there is no way to definitively prove or disprove that plate tectonics gave rise to the architecture of the earth as we now see it. However, the evidence collected by geologists is so convincing that it is logical to deduce that plate tectonics has occurred. This is also the case for the theory of evolution: the myriad evidence has led scientists to deduce that organisms are not static, but change over time upon adaptation to selective pressures.

One source of evidence is repeatedly attacked by Johnson; namely, the fossil record. Fossilization is a rare event, to be certain. It is far more likely that the remains of organisms will be rapidly decomposed as opposed to fossilized. As a result, the fossil record is composed of organisms that were widespread and existed (or still currently exist) for a long period of time during the earth’s history. It should come as no surprise that there are significant gaps in the fossil record. Johnson seems to be under the impression that the fossil record is a neat and tidy compendium of all life that has existed on earth. In reality, the fossil record supplies researchers with an exceedingly minute sampling of organisms that have existed on earth. This is likely the reason that intermediate links or transitional fossils, those that “bridge the gap” between two closely related species, are some of the most rare of fossils. If transitional forms are ephemeral, their absence in the fossil record is expected. Johnson desperately tries to convince the reader that the lack of transitional fossils is grounds for dismissing the theory of evolution. If the fossil record does not show it, it must not have happened. Unfortunately for Johnson, the number of transitional fossils has increased since his book was first published. A very good resource for transitional fossils is The TalkOrigins Archive ( It is very obvious that Johnson has overlooked these fossils to add validity to his argument.

Perhaps the gravest error that Johnson made in writing “Darwin on Trial” is the explanation that laboratory science cannot establish a mechanism for evolution. He then goes on to explain that “microevolution”, or mutations that slightly modify members of a given species, does occur and is even accepted among creation-scientists. Microevolution occurs when random mutations give rise to a heterogeneous population of organisms that are similar, but differ slightly in their outward phenotypic traits. When a selective pressure such as a change in the environment occurs, some members of the population will be able to survive the change, and some will not. Those that survive will live on to reproduce, thereby passing down the genetic traits that allowed for their own survival, and the overall population will change, with those individuals that were able to survive and reproduce under the new selective pressure becoming the sole members of the species. What Johnson fails to see is that this is evolution. Whether you choose to give it a prefix like “micro” or claim that it is insignificant does not change the fact that this is exactly what evolution is, and the mechanism by which organisms evolve. That being the case, it has been possible for scientist to document the evolution of such organisms as certain insects, which have rapidly become resistant to pesticides, or microbes such as bacteria and viruses, which have become resistant to many antibiotics and pharmaceutical therapeutics. There is no reason to think that these types of changes, which in actuality are quite drastic, cannot be extended over millions of years to give rise to speciation events, or “macroevolution”. In my opinion, to embrace microevolution is to embrace evolution, period. Johnson simply tries to sidestep the issue by using the term microevolution. If microevolution can occur, what biological barriers exist to prevent macroevolution? The bottom line is that both qualify as evolution, and Johnson is wrong in stating that the mechanism of evolution has not been discovered by science.

One of the more disturbing aspects of Johnson’s book is that he tries to give the reader the impression that many well-renowned scientists are aware that the theory of evolution is significantly flawed, yet try to “cover-up” the condemning evidence so that they can safeguard their sacred theory. He portrays scientists as a secular group with the sole aim of disproving the existence of a divine being or god capable of creating life. In every case in his book, when he brings up criticisms about the theory of evolution, those criticisms come from scientists that support the theory. Further, if Johnson was able to procure these statements, what is stopping the general public from obtaining them? Nothing. Read the research notes and pull out the original articles, or simply do some of your own research on the topic.

Scientists are not brainwashed zealots that accept everything they are told, but rather challenge current theory when new evidence comes to light. By no means is the theory of evolution static; it is constantly being changed and altered as more evidence accumulates. Do scientists become protective when people challenge evolution? I know I do. This is not because I am trying to hide anything or secretly want to discredit the existence of a divine being, but because evolution is a theory that is consistently under attack by religious groups who want to see it banned from existence. I strongly believe that Johnson’s portrayal of scientists is fantasy, but I do think that it is a very accurate description of the type of people he is trying to represent: creationists.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It's just another way to say FUN!

Big Dig Conference 2007. Bible apologetics for teens has never been so cool!

I heard a commercial for this today while listening to PrimeTime America (Christian news radio). The announcer solemnly asked if your kids would know what to say if the other kids started talking about Darwin or how other religions might be paths to the truth as well.

I must say that the website is surprisingly professional and "hip". Its a testament to how far they have to go to reach out to the kids these days. Man, I'd love to have a video of this conference to dissect later.

Satan's gotta be quakin' in his boots over this one.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Infidel Links - 2007-04-22

National Geographic presents: Jesus and Friends

Mystical warrior (chi) vs real warrior (fists): Who will win?

Can you feel the spirit? (It's a loooong build up, but I think its worth the wait)

You knew it was coming: The devil made him do it

Christianity synopsis (not safe for the squeamish)

Save me o lord from this beautiful day in the park

Learn the tricks of the trade from a lifelong evangelist

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Friday, April 20, 2007

In case you forgot, science is cool!

As far as religious assaults on reality go, I'm mostly familiar with the crazy worlds of bible apologetics and intelligent design. For a change of pace I thought I'd look into some of the arguments that are used by proponents of the young earth (10,000 or less years old). As always, taken in isolation the arguments are pretty compelling. For instance, if comets can only last on the order of 10s of thousands of years due to evaporation, a fact that no astrophysicist disputes, how can there be comets around still? Or if we know that meteor dust falls on the earth and moon at a certain rate then why is there only a couple of centimeters of dust on the moon as the 10,000 year old earth theory would predict (and not dozens of feet)?

I had actually never heard the young earth arguments before and did not have any ready responses to most of the young earth claims. As usual the real scientific story behind these mysteries is way more interesting than certain leather bound fairy tales. If you've never looked at the young earth claims and their debunking here is a great introduction:

How Good Are Those Young-Earth Arguments?

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I think I hate Alan Watts

For some reason I was cruising around some zen links recently (this page started me off in that direction). I some how ended up on a page with Alan Watts giving a talk on The Pursuit of Pleasure. And man did I hate every minute of this. I wonder if it was just his smug voice or his absolutely atrocious cascade of non sequiturs or cutie-pie theme about how the real world is "wiggly" or I dunno.

The Way of Zen was one of my favorite books in college. It seemed so cool and deep at the time. Now if I ever read it again, I'm going to hear that voice.

Zen is dead to me now.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Infidel Links - 2007-04-15

Deny Jebus and forget about Christmas!

The devil hates them and so do I

The church of Darwin

Who knew the Treaty of Tripoli was so interesting? See article 11

Atheism *is* a religion. How did I ever miss this before?

This just in: God is a rage-oholic!

It's time to ask the fossils what they think

Einstein's God

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Blogging the Bible

I think I've mentioned this before, but it stands to be mentioned again. I can't recommend enough Slate's Blogging the Bible series. He's only planning to do the Old Testament, but it's really interesting commentary. Not scholarly or historically informed, but very interesting nonetheless.

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What level of hell do the tellers of bad jokes go to?

Did you hear that there's a group of South American Indians that worship the number zero?

Is nothing sacred?



Friday, April 13, 2007

Sonata For Unaccompanied Atheist: Carrier's "Why I Am Not A Christian" - section 1

>> Richard Carrier's Why I Am Not A Christian

As I begin to respond to your RC comments I'm reminded why I just archived your response and didn't reply in the first place (which I admit was a little rude). I honestly couldn't think of anything to say that I haven't said before. But since you asked, here you go.

In the below I will summarize what I think his arguments are per section and respond to your comments per section.


This essay is an attempt to explain why he doesn't believe in the Christian God. His basic method is to use a fairly non-controversial definition of Christianity then propose what sort of world you would expect given this sort of model. He then argues that the world predicted by this definition is different from what we actually observe. This is taken as evidence that the Christian hypothesis is untrue.

As a definition of Christianity he uses one proposed by CS Lewis in "Mere Christianity":

"mere Christianity" consist[s] in the belief that "there is one God" who "is quite definitely good or righteous," "who takes sides, who loves love and hates hatred, who wants us to behave in one way and not in another," and who "invented and made the universe." But this God also "thinks that a great many things have gone wrong" with the world and thus "insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again," and to this end arranged the death and resurrection of "His only Son," Jesus Christ, who is or embodies or represents the Creator, and can alone "save" us from "eternal death" if we now ask this Jesus to forgive our sins.

RC argues that the above fails as a hypothesis for the following 4 reasons: God is silent, God is inert, evidence is inadequate, and physical universe is different than we'd expect.

SUMMARY SECTION 1 God is silent (my summary plus some additional thoughts by me)

Because God loves us and wants the best for us and has unlimited resources then we should expect that he would make the rules of life completely clear to every person. Even we fallible humans have almost no trouble getting important points across to each other most of the time. The best communicator should have no problem making sure that we all have this information and realize its importance.

I think it is hard to argue that the information *is* clearly and unambiguously available to all. Competing claims of unique paths to the truth (different religions, different denominations) are allowed to flourish. Many people at many times in history didn't and don't have access to a bible not to mention the barrier of illiteracy. Compare this to the example of the apostle Paul who never met Jesus in the flesh but was given the good news directly. It's hard to imagine why every person ever wouldn't be given the same courtesy.

Attempts to explain the silence by the hypotheses that God wants to preserve our free will are non-starters. Giving people clear information and then giving them a choice happens all the time and doesn't strip them of free will. E.g. a doctor can give me clear info on how to take care of myself and I can choose how to use this info. Even if we were somehow able to resist God with our willfulness its unclear why a good God who loves us wouldn't overcome this stupid/willful part of us. E.g. a good lifeguard will fight a panicking drown victim if necessary.

For any reason you come up with to explain why God might appear to be silent but isn't really you need to ask your self is this reason supported by evidence or is it just an ad hoc idea that *if* true would explain the silence. You can't rescue an unsupported hypothesis by heaping on another unsupported hypothesis.

So for the everyday meaning of silent, God is silent. This contradicts what you would expect from a loving all powerful God who wants us to have important information on the most important aspect of life

[Your reply with my comments]


You complain that he doesn't give any reasons for why he assumes God would be a certain way. It seems pretty clear that he's taking CS Lewis definition of Christianity as his basis. He then attempts to extrapolate what we would expect by using the normal meaning of love, goodness, etc. Everything I know about love and goodness comes from my interaction with people so it seems fair as a first attempt to use what I would expect of a good and loving person as a predictor of what we would expect of God. I played with this idea myself here. If you have evidence that good and loving means something different when applied to God than when applied to a person then you'll have to make your case for this. But there is a problem, I agree. If you talk to 10 Christians you'll get 11 definitions of Christianity so there is a pretty small chance he was going to agree with your definition of Christianity and prediction of God's behavior. While I think he makes a pretty good stab at taking CS Lewis's definition of Christianity seriously the problem is no one knows what God would do in any situation and what his true attributes are. That fact alone supports the point of this section.


Your idea that God used to speak to us directly but stopped because we were rebellious needs to be supported somehow. You can't just state this is obviously true and expect that he should have addressed this.


You assert that God gave us the bible. I'm curious to see your evidence for this. Also even if that's true the fact that people seem "hell-bent" on interpreting it in different ways from each other without access to an unambiguous way to verify interpretations seems to support the idea that God doesn't care if we get an accurate interpretation. You assert that God speaks to us by giving us a conscience. What is your evidence for this? You simply criticize his arguments by making unsupported assertions. This is not very convincing to me. Can you give me some evidence that God gave us a conscience and that this was intended as a message? You have to show both of these independently since one doesn't necessarily imply the other. Also you say that the majesty of creation speaks to us. Even if I accepted the idea that the majesty of nature implies God, what about the majesty of creation says Jesus rather than Vishnu? I mean if God wants us to know the truth then gives us imperfect information and imperfect truth detectors its hard to see how this supports the hypothesis that he loves us and wants us to know the truth.


I'm glad you don't believe the "God wants to preserve our free will" argument since it's not a good one but it *is* very common so I think it was appropriate for him to address. But then you give a view of salvation that is so strange I'm not even sure how to respond to it. If I understand correctly you are saying that people are only saved by God overcoming their resistance. And no one can resist. So the implication is that God doesn't want some people to be saved. If that is true it hard to understand how this jives with God loving everyone. But even more importantly we need to establish the bible as having *any* authority to speak on the nature of God and salvation before it's even worth looking at this argument.


To what ever extent RC is just "making up" things about how God works, it's hard to see how you are doing anything different. You are just saying that book x says that he's wrong. He is attempting a reductio ad absurdum so it's appropriate for him to start with CS Lewis' definition and see where that takes him. You on the other hand need to give some evidence that God is the way you say he is.

He definitely doesn't address your beliefs on salvation specifically but I think even you will admit that your beliefs are not exactly main stream Christianity so how could he even know to address your specific arguments? And just to reiterate, your arguments hold no weight until we establish the perfection of the bible.

And I guess I feel like I should point out that saying something *could* be true is not evidence that it is. Many apologist arguments seem to come down to: well it could be the case and you can't prove it's not. This of course says nothing about the actual truth of things.

The next response will address section two. As a quick aside I have to wonder why you find meaning in a universe where God chooses who gets salvation and who doesn't and overcomes their resistance or ignores them at his whim. Seems a lot like predestination and the negation of freewill. That's about as pointless a life as I can imagine, but this would be an interesting line to pursue at some point.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

The "New Atheism" from the perspective of Christian radio

As I've mentioned before I have a strange fascination with Christian media, in particular with Christian news radio shows. On my way home from work today I caught a bit of a segment on "The New Atheism". If nothing else it's fun to hear the commentator quote Dawkins at length. Tee hee!

Prime Time Live (starts at 1h31m).

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Minty Fresh: Scopes Trial transcript excerpt

If you haven't seen this before, this is fairly entertaining exchange. They should totally make a movie about this.

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Breaking the Spell: Chap 04 - The Roots of Religion

Dennett begins with some really amusing examples of religious diversity. Personally I can't get enough of cargo cults. Whether you find religions funny "ha ha" or funny "strange" there is a mystery here to solve. Where do religions come from? Building on the introduction and justification for evolutionary explanations in the previous chapter we now start applying these tools and techniques. While the origin of religion will likely always remain shrouded in some mystery, one thing we can be fairly confident of is that like any thing else, religion will be subject to biological constraints and we will need to determine how religion "pays" for itself at any step along its development.

For those that think religion is explained by saying it gives comfort in the face of death, explains the unexplainable or promotes group behavior you should step back and realize that these "explanations" aren't very deep and provoke just as many questions as they supposedly answer. Why should belief in god give comfort in death, etc.

A tentative framework that will be used for understanding the components of religious belief are based on Pascal Boyers idea of brain "gadgets. The gadgets he proposes that are necessary for religion to arise are: agent detector, memory manager, cheater detector, moral intuition generator, sweet tooth for telling/hearing stories, various alarm systems, and the intentional stance. The idea is that the interaction between these components will spontaneously support/create religious beliefs.

The key item for explaining where religion arises from is our HADD (Hyperactive Agent Detection Device). Being able to treat things as the world as an agent or just a thing gives us a way to deal with potential mates, meals, attackers, etc in a reliable way. False positives are less likely to cause our demise than false negatives. Therefore we are slightly biased to seeing an agent based on scant clues. Once we've learned another agent pretty well we can run our agent simulator when ever we want to make a guess what they are thinking or what they would do in a given situation. If they ceased to live we would still be able to simulate them in our minds. And this suggests where the idea of survival of personality after death likely comes from.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sonata For Unaccompanied Atheist: Just Look


The main gist seems to be that if you are open minded and honest (skeptical but fair) then you will see the truth. I agree. But there is a fairly large implication in this essay that there is a certain truth that you should see. If you don't come to the conclusion that Jesus is Lord then you weren't being honest and open minded. I didn't come to that conclusion and yet I believe and feel that I'm being open minded and honest as I know how. So you need to show me where I'm falling down. Certainly you can't argue that I'm not open minded and honest merely *because* I didn't reach that conclusion. You need instead to show that I'm not being open minded and not being honest independently of what conclusion you think I should have reached.

Here are some general thoughts I had while reading this essay, but I think my points in the previous email regarding what it would take for me to believe in Jesus covers many of his points already.

  • I think there is a pretty good chance that the guy who wrote the original question to Glenn is being ironic or sarcastic. I can't prove this but it's a hunch. It would be interesting to see if Glenn's response did anything for him, but since there is no follow up I guess we'll never know.

  • There is a running theme about how good kids are at discerning the truth and judging character and being open and honest investigators. I have to say I'm particularly amused by his example of a 3 or 4 year old and their open minded yet fair common sense about the world. As the proud owner of a 3 to 4 year old I can say that the last thing in the world I would trust is their powers of following evidence and being good judges of character. I spend a lot of time these days around little kids and it's hard to think of anyone who makes *worse* decisions about truth and human character. Unless someone stinks or is wearing a monster suit. They pick up on those clues pretty reliably. I can only imagine that you and Glenn so want Jesus's words about "come like a child" to be true that you would over look something so obvious. I could go on all day on this topic but the fact that all 3 and 4 year olds gladly take the religion of their parents (no matter what religion it is) should give you a little clue on this.

    Even if I *did* go along with the idea that they are good judges of character we would need to verify this somehow. People tend to remember the hits and forget the misses which is likely the source of this misconception about kids. I'll admit I could be wrong and I've somehow been around kids who don't have these infallible facilities for intuiting truth, but in any case we'd need an independent way to verify this.

    There is a good reason kids don't vote, write checks, or make adult decisions. Learning and experience are hard won attributes. Childlike innocence is almost always bad for dealing with reality. That's why parent's work so hard to protect them.

    Furthermore, the one good virtue that kids do have is asking question after question after question. They are very curious (just like me). If we want children to come as they are then we should also welcome the relentless questions as well. The problem with kids is that they are pretty bad at filtering out good answers from bad. As long as you phrase something as an answer they will usually accept it.

  • If I claim that I was open minded and honest and came up with Zen Buddhism as "the answer" then you'd say I was wrong and start showing reasons and arguments, so I'm not even sure what the point of this essay is except to say that there is only one correct answer and any one who comes up with anything else is a liar or impure or closed mined, etc.

  • Have you approached / tried out every religion on the planet with an open child like acceptance or a open minded skepticism? When did you assess Jainism for instance? Or Sufism? Don't you think that would be necessary before you affirm Christianity so strongly?

  • It's a beautiful piece of propaganda to say that the good/pure/open minded can see something that the wise can't. How appealing it is to believe that you have an innate ability that is superior to the hard work and careful scholarship of the so called "wise". It's an especially good way to start an Emperor's New Clothes scam. In any case, if I just trust you then I'll never know. Perhaps you've been scammed and are just passing on your scammed beliefs. I won't know as long I just trust you.

  • Apologists are always pointing out the wise atheists who've studied the word carefully and come to see it's truth. So should I be a trusting child or a demanding fact and logic driven scholar? Seems a bit contradictory to be both of these things. Being a child didn't work for these people either as I understand it.

  • This essay is filled with lots of claims that require a belief that the Bible is true. For each of these you can assume my child like question why or how do you know?

  • Almost everything in this essay could be used to support another belief system (except for specific Christian details).

    • ignore the skeptics and look for your self
    • be open minded
    • trust yourself
    • apparent contradictions can be explained
    • people gave their lives, were transformed,
    • etc

  • If I go with the open minded skepticism and believing the best of people, why should I choose to examine Christianity first? And why should I stop there? How long should I spend with any one religion before I try the next?

    • Clearly most people in the world are really bad at picking the right religion let alone the right denomination
    • The whole reason we are having this conversation is because you think I have a bad spiritual sense. Why is reading the article going to change that?

  • I do have "skeptical mind" but I'm not so sure I have skeptical heart

    • I actually believe most people in most religions are (mostly) doing their best and working hard to know the truth. That's why I have a huge mystery to solve. If I trust everyone to work hard to get the truth but everyone disagrees then clearly something is fundamentally wrong with the way most people approach religion.

    • I'm not sure how else to give the benefit of the doubt other than to have this conversation. If i had a closed heart would I even bother to talk to you about this stuff?

  • "Christianity is most likely answer". Glenn suggests that if you have some obvious clues then you should take the most obvious explanation. I couldn't agree more. But:

    • he doesn't show that these clues are real
    • he doesn't show how it's the most likely explanation (e.g. what are all the different hypotheses (Judaism, Taoism atheism) and how is it better in which ways

    • the word obvious masks a lot of assumptions and possibilities for bias

  • Going with your heart sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. That's why someone always has to do the dirty work and see just how good the heart is doing (e.g. careful, skeptical analysis of the evidence). Obviously you don't think any one in any other religion is doing this correctly or that I have. Just you and your team.

  • Saying that God reveals himself in prophesies, beauty of nature complexity, etc sort of assumes what it's trying to show don't you think? And which God is it showing? What about the joy of family life points to Yahweh and not Shiva? I know many Indians with very happy family lives. And I know many Christians with crappy family lives.

  • I totally agree with his reasonable doubt example. I just think there is more than enough reasons for reasonable doubt in the case of the Bible/Christianity:

    • The example he gives of convicting for a crime is obvious. No one in the world would disagree if things were so clear.
    • Best predictor of whether this is obvious to you is if you were born in a Christian country to a Christian family.
    • He merely states that Christianity is best explanation but doesn't make the actual case.
    • And just to be thorough we'd have to consider the possible but unlikely scenario that this was a very very clever frame job. Common sense will miss the actual occasional frame jobs. Innocent people go to jail sometimes and the guilty walk free sometimes so we need to factor that into the example if we are to be thoroughly honest.

Any way I think you get the picture.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Infidel Links - 2007-04-08

An atheist gets a little taste of hell - for 30 days

Some fun with Dawkins/Haggard clips: Python style, pants optional style

Of course we all know there is no conflict between religion and science

Hmmm... PZ's not buying it

Map of how evolution is taught

Honk twice for your horned master (but follow the zoning rules)

God vs Satan body count (graphic)

Here's what a true biblical literalist would look like

Geeks and belief



Saturday, April 07, 2007

Happy Easter: free viewing of The God Who Wasn't There

Here for Easter Sunday only....


Friday, April 06, 2007

Sonata For Unaccompanied Atheist: Easter Surprise

You have suggested that looking to religions for answers is worth while and starting with Christianity is the best bet. Obviously I'm willing to follow along with this line of thought but I'll just remind you why *I* don't think religion seems like a useful place to look for answers. The fact is and I'm sure you'll agree that most people for most of recorded history have had the *wrong* beliefs (from your perspective and mine). Furthermore, almost everyone on the planet has the same beliefs as their family, neighbors. On that alone it's hard to be enthusiastic that one of these is actually the true religion and it just happens to be the one that you are affiliated with. It could be true but I don't know why I would be optimistic about this. And if one is true I'm not sure why I would trust my self to pick the right one since obviously the majority of humanity is really bad at picking the right one. Just a couple of considerations as we go forward.

You make a number of statements that all seem to center around the claim that believing the Bible is true makes more sense than to doubt it, in particular the claim that Jesus was the Son of God. Before looking at your case, here are some things that it seems I'd need to address with respect to Jesus before making a commitment to him:

  • did the person/being named Jesus Christ described in the Bible actually exist in the flesh and walk the earth?
  • are the accounts of him in the gospels and the rest of the NT true, complete, unembellished, consistent?
    • miracles (virgin birth, resurrection, healings, walk on water, water->wine). Is there any reliable way to know if a one time occurrence actually happened?
    • are all the important parts of his life story and message included in the Bible? Ie, were the authors of the NT trustworthy, accurate writers? Did the group who assembled the Bible in current form do a good job (keep the good stuff and throw out the bad)?
  • even if his words/actions were correctly recorded do we know he was speaking the truth? (e.g. A Jew could make the hypothesis that he came to deceive people and trick them away from Judaism with his miraculous powers.) He could mix in so good stuff to lure the unwary.
  • was there something special/unique about his message?
    • did he make statements or provide wisdom that weren't shared by other traditions and are totally beyond the ability of a humans to come up with?
  • are we correctly interpreting what the scriptures say?
    • e.g. if the truth of the Bible is so clear to the open mind then why are there so many denominations with fairly important doctrinal differences?
  • can we trust him to keep his word?
    • maybe he came down to test us for gullibility. maybe he was an alien just passing through? maybe he's asleep now or he lost interest in us.
    • does he have the power to deliver on his promises?
    • maybe the devil has a trick ending in mind? maybe god is powerful but deluded e.g. there is a god over your god that even he doesn't know about.

That's a short list of some of the points that I'd need to be pretty sure about before I committed to Christianity. From my point of view we'd have to be really sure about *every* one of these. If one link in the chain doesn't hold then the rest of the links are useless.

If any of these requirements seem unfair or overly demanding you should ask yourself what questions you would want answered by someone of another religion about their faith. I'm fairly confident you'd be at *least* as picky about their beliefs.

From your previous email (and some earlier ones) here's what I take to be part of your case for believing the Bible and that Jesus is the Son of God: (sorry if I've misrepresented any of your beliefs.)

  • You say that the Bible is the most amazingly consistent and predictive book ever.
    • I would consider this to be the *last* thing we will know for sure. If I did believe the some past events were correctly predicted then we would still have lots of important predictions that haven't come true yet. We won't know that the Bible is 100% true until *all* the predictions have come true. Even if the Bible is a little bit amazing then we'd still be well advised to maintain skepticism about the entirety of it's claims.

      And of course as we've discussed before it's far from uncontroversial that the Bible is error free, self consistent and contains prophecy. If you have serious concerns about how honestly I looked at the Daniel prophecies I'm open to hearing your criticisms but at best it's inconclusive that prophecy took place. And if I need to become an expert on the Qumran scrolls in order to be convinced that seems a little unfair to expect that most/many people would ever see the truth of prophecy.

    • Being self consistent (assuming that is true) is not really *amazing* per se. The Iliad is self consistent. It would be almost *more* miraculous if it was completely contradictory and people still believed it. :)
    • We are always going to have trouble showing that prophecy took place if the prediction and the event both happened in the past. Even if I *did* see real prediction occur today, how do I distinguish between: luck, supernatural but evil influence, advanced technologies I don't understand, self fulfilling prophecies.
    • Every issue of this magazine (and lots of other resources) argues against this claim of consistency, etc. Whether you buy their arguments or not it's simply not true that the Bible is obviously true, self consistent, etc. E.g. if someone sees two different lineages for Jesus in the gospels it's not obvious that these are not contradictions. And yes I'm aware of the apologist case. I'm just saying that on a first reading an open minded person would hardly be faulted for seeing this as a contradiction.
    • People are notorious liars and embellishers. Even with the best of intentions memory plays tricks on them. In other words the human element in the creation of the Bible and it's propagation and interpretation will always be a problem.
  • People died for their beliefs
    • I'm sure you don't want to allow this as evidence for other faiths so why is that relevant here? People killed themselves so they can catch a ride on a spaceship hiding behind a comet. People do lots of nutty things. Suicide bombers seem to gladly sign up for the job.
  • They told unflattering truths about themselves
    • First of course we'd have to verify that these unflattering truth were actually truths. Perhaps they just make a better story. Stories about perfect people who don't make mistakes or don't have anything interesting (unexpected, dangerous, unfair) happen to them are really boring. Also these could have been real people who did real things and later on people tried to view these factual events in some religious ways.
    • A common conman trick is to disclose false flaws about yourself to earn trust. The victim then might say to them self: "why would someone tell me a fault unless they were an honest person?" You should read up on the history and techniques of conmen you might find some interesting perspectives.
  • Truths in the Bible are hard to swallow
    • Lots of truths in life are hard to swallow that doesn't make them divinely inspired.
    • Assuming he did say these things, giving hard to swallow advice is not obviously a sign of greatness, godhood. Every religion is filled with things that are hard to swallow. In fact that is just about the definition of religion: a collection of statements that are hard to swallow.
  • Just read X and you'll be amazed. In this case you recommended the gospel of John for X. I have read it several times (as a believer and after). I am not amazed. How many times should I read it? Which parts?
    • Even if I was amazed that doesn't imply divine inspiration. Lots of things written by humans have really amazed me, changed my life, gave me tingles on my spine, put me in a daze for days. So even if John had that effect it is not obvious how I would interpret that.
    • If I went with whatever speaks to my heart I'd probably go with zen or taoism. So obviously my aesthetic/spiritual sense is not too reliable. Why should I trust yours?
    • Jesus doesn't seem to say so many profound things as far as I'm concerned. Much of it is rehashing from the OT and much of his wisdom is found independently and earlier in other religions. Saying "I'm the light of the world" doesn't seem very profound to me. It's not wisdom per say it's a claim regarding his attributes. It's somewhat vague as to what it means and I have no way to verify it in any case.
    • Even if Jesus said profound things, people say all sorts of profound things. All the time. And even if something sounds profound to me I'm not always a good judge. I'm not aware of anything that is *so* amazing that you can't imagine someone coming up with it on their own.
  • "My life was transformed". All religions have people who claim this. How would you prove to me that this is a spiritual transformation and not just a something in your brain? Or the work of the devil?
    • in what way are you/the world better off because of this transformation?
    • how can you differentiate this from a pure fantasy or delusion as it most assuredly is the case in every *other* belief system.
    • besides spending eternity in heaven, what is your transformation doing for you now? Could an independent observer in any way distinguish between a transformed person and a non-transformed person?
  • Christianity makes the most sense of the world.
    • It is possible for an explanation to fit the data pretty well and be completely wrong (Ptolemy).
    • I don't understand why the existence of Hitler and Wilberforce fits the Christian world view better than anything else. Why does it fit better than Judaism? Or taoism? What is specifically mismatched with the taoist world view?
  • It's true because believing it works. (You may not have said this, but i hear this all the time so i thought I'd throw that in)
    • I hope you don't need me to point out why this isn't true.
  • How do i know that Christianity isn't a false extension of Judaism the same way that Mormonism is a false extension of Christianity?
    • I certainly can't make a judgement based on popularity or intensity of belief.
    • New variations of religions come along *all* the time even in this modern age when people have much better ways to detect fraud. And people fall for these new religions in droves. I'm assuming that you think Mormonism is false. Clearly millions and millions of people disagree. Why couldn't people have been bad judges of character and truth back then as well? I would imagine they'd be even worse. But certainly they were probably not (much) better than we are today.

It could be very well true the the "truth" was revealed in a one time historical event and that event was recorded in a book and I have an opportunity to accept that truth. How could I possibly prove that is not the way things are? But it's also not likely that I could ever know for sure that that *is* how things are. Until it's too late of course. I find it hard to believe that God would work in such a "hacky" way. That's not proof that he didn't, but it would be somewhat surprising. I've been surprised before.

Next I'll take a look at the Glen Miller essay you recommended.

As just a final thought, whether you believe me or not I'm actually trying to be as honest and rigorous as I know how. I'm far more interested in understanding and reaching the truth than reaching a forgone conclusion. I could certainly reach a forgone conclusion with a lot less work. The bottom line is that in an important sense I don't really care if there is a god or if Jesus was his son. If there is and he was then obviously I'll have to readjust my life in some ways but my most important consideration right now is to determine what is true to the best of my ability.

As always I look forward to your reply. Happy Easter!


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Breaking the Spell: Chap 03 - Why Good Things Happen

I continue to find it hard to believe that any believer would spend time reading this book. While he explicitly says that studying a religion as a natural phenomena doesn't imply that there is no supernatural component, it certainly doesn't help the case that there is. And clearly if you *claim* that you can account for all the pieces in a naturalistic way then obviously the notion of a supernatural element begins to seem awfully superfluous. It's hard to imagine this not leading the god oriented reader to assume then that the naturalistic explanation must be wrong. I'm sure he's spoken to a lot of believers and is using his most successful tactics to keep them engaged, but it really strains credulity that many have even made it this far into the book. And he's barely even started rolling up his sleeves.

In this chapter he explains that using evolutionary reasoning is the best way of explaining why organisms do what they do, like what they like. E.g. we like sugar not because it is sweet, rather sugar is sweet because it was adaptive to prefer concentrated sources of sugar. Well it was at one point in our history now it's a trait that is too easily abused.

Humorously Dennett bids farewell to the religious believers who refuse to accept that evolution is well established and important science. "Good bye and hope to see you back someday".

Dennett then continues with the main thrust of the chapter, looking at all the different possibilities that an evolutionary perspective provides when trying to explain a phenomena.

One family of theories is the "sweet-tooth" theories. Religion may be providing something in intensified form that we are genetically programmed to need. Another family of theories is the "symbiont" theories. Religion could be a mutualist, commensal or parasitic resident of our brain. And of course religion may be some combination of sweet-tooth *and* symbiont. In either case the idea is to figure out who gains what from the relationship between our brain and religious thought.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Adventures in Ethics: On Flatulence

One school of thought has it that being ethical is like a muscle or a skill that you can develop with practice and effort. As Karen Armstrong portrays it in "The Great Transformation" selfless devotion to ethical behavior is practically a golden road to enlightenment. So as a personal challenge I'm going to experiment with slowly ratcheting up my ethical quotient.

It's hard to have a project like this without well defined metrics for measuring your progress. I don't have any good system in mind yet for how I will measure the total value of my various ethical behaviors but I will use two basic principles for measuring my progress:

  • If I add an ethical behavior and don't lose any existing behaviors then I have advanced ethically.

  • If I do more of an ethical behavior (give more money to charities, give blood more often) then I have advanced ethically.

    So one relatively easy ethical goal is to raise the amount of money I give to charity. If you are looking for deserving place you could do worse than the Malawi Children's Village And no I didn't learn about Malawi from Madonna. Stop asking me that!

    But giving money is easy, I want a bigger challenge (not too big) that will reshape my ethical instincts in a permanent way, make the world a better place and teach me something deep and meaningful about myself. So in that vein I've given up farting for the month of April. OK, not all farting, just around people. Ethics is all about other people anyway, right? This will develop a constant concern for the welfare of others, encourage discipline and may even help with global warming.

    If you are concerned about the direction the world is heading and are looking for a small but meaningful way to set the ethical course for your life, please join me in making April a flatulence free month. You have nothing to lose but that toxic haze.

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    Sunday, April 01, 2007

    Sonata For Unaccompanied Atheist: The Self

    [What's going on here?]

    My response to a discussion with OGNG which presumably arose from this blog entry.

    Presumably you believe in an immortal soul and I'm guessing because of this you feel that mind/self/consciousness is not much of a mystery. Assuming this is your belief I look forward to hearing your case for:

    - the existence of a soul
    - immortality of the soul
    - how the soul and the physical world interact

    For me mind/self/consciousness is a huge mystery that I've been reading and thinking about for as long as I can remember. Delving into my understanding of the current best scientific explanation for mind/consciousness/self would seem to be going far afield of our core conversation, but if that's the direction you want to go then I'll gladly outline the big picture as I understand it (though you'd be much better served to go read up on it for yourself). The one thing I will say is that it would be most surprising to me if an understanding of the self included a self as part of the explanation. I'm not ruling it out but let's take the example of how the brain perceives the color red or the taste of chocolate. While we know a lot about the chemical reactions, brain modules and sensory apparatus that allow us to perceive these things, there is also much left to understand. But the one thing that is clear is that when we perceive red there is no inherent "red-ness" in our brains and there is no "chocolaty-ness" in our brain. These are in a sense illusions. Illusion is not meant as a pejorative term. The ability to detect 3D-ness in a photo from shading is also an illusion as I'm using the word. Another thing I experience which I'd like to understand is the self. From what I know about the brain it is not clear why I should write off the idea a priori that the sense of self is an illusion of sorts as well.

    For what it's worth my theories of the mind/self/consciousness have been largely shaped by Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained, Minds I), Steven Pinker (lots of books) and more recently Susan Blackmore (essays and interviews) among others.

    I'm not sure why I care what a mathematician's (C.J.S. Clarke) theory is on the nature of the mind and self. Should I start reporting what my plumber thinks about it as well? Also you may be surprised that philosophically Descartes "cogito" is not considered very sound or obvious by a lot of scholars. Just google around for the phrase and you'd see lots of different opinions on it's validity or usefulness.

    I think I understand why you think my exploration of the idea of the self as illusion is a desperate attempt on my part to replace god and a not-so-silent cry for help. Presumably your theory is that if I don't believe in god and don't report being miserable I must be lying or self deluded. Since you don't have evidence for either these claims I'm hoping you can reign in your speculation. (If you do have evidence that I'm miserable or my heart is crying out I'd appreciate specific examples). But if the crying out of my heart for help is too distracting I'll try to find the volume and turn it down a little for you. You *might* also as a thought experiment consider whether hearing my heart call out for help is just an illusion on your part. I asked my wife if I seemed desperate or if she heard my heart crying out and she said, "Why are you wasting your time talking to that guy?". I'm not sure if that's a yes or a no.


    Infidel Links - 2007-04-01

    Peanut Butter: the atheist's nightmare

    Chuck Norris went past black belt to bible belt

    The evolution of Homer

    Anyone ever told you that you can't play god? Well they were wrong!

    Starbucks and Darwin

    Dawkins and Collins *not* debating on Fresh Air

    Singing + Mocking God = Humor

    If you thought there was actually some dude named Jesus who actually walked around, think again

    Great debate between Dawkins and McGrath

    Thank God for GodTube

    You can teach all the Bible you want as long as they include the warning stickers

    Just in time for easter - Chocolate Jesus


    If you had any lingering doubts, hell really really really is real

    Sam Harris (the energizer bunny of disbelief) vs the best selling author of Christian literature on the planet (besides Jesus)


    Dawkins: On the road to Damascus..

    Dawkins Conversion Shocker!

    [AP Cambridge] Richards Dawkins, world famous atheist and Dr Who fan reports that he has converted to Christianity, specifically Southern Baptist. When asked what prompted this highly unusual 180 change in views he made the following press release available.
    Praise Jesus! First of all I want to apologize for all the murders, abortions and homosexual rampages that my belief in evolution has caused. God has forgiven me and I can only hope you will as well. Secondly I want to thank the Lord of Creation for showing me the truth after all these years.

    Many will be fairly incredulous at my sudden change in beliefs. The truth is that I've felt uneasy about promulgating the lie of evolution for so many years but I felt sort of trapped by the atheist hate machine that is modern biology and I wasn't sure how to escape. Then one night staying at a motel during my book tour I happened to open the drawer looking for some Darjeeling tea when I happened upon a Bible. Now I have said a lot of harsh things about this book in the last few years, but the truth is I had never actually read it and had based most of my criticisms on Google searches. Well, I tell you friends, I started reading that blessed tome and found I couldn't stop. These words were more sweet than any music in my ears and the taste of the sweetest honey on my lips. And I didn't have to read far to find the answers I had been searching for all these years. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." I mean, duh! It really is that simple once the scales have been removed from your eyes.

    I can't believe how many times I have recited the atheist lies. As if saying something over and over makes it true. I have known for a long time that mutations can only make things worse, not better but when you are Hell bent on disproving God you will do or say anything. But now the blind have been made to see. Yes friends, it looks designed because it is designed. It says so right here in this quite aptly named Good Book.

    One more thing: remember either there is a God or their isn't. If there is then you have everything to gain or lose. If not what does it matter? That's a 50% chance. Please consider going to church as soon as possible.

    God Bless!
    It has been reported that Dawkins has quit his position as professor of the public understanding of science and will be taking a position at the Discovery Institute where he will direct the Intelligent Design Interdisciplinary 0pen Teaching Symposium (IDIOTS). Anonymous sources have hinted that massive quantities of peanut butter has been shipped in for some top secret research projects.

    Dawkins also reports the title of his next book will be "The Evolution Delusion".