Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

March 6, 2010

Responses to Lea Anne

Filed under: Education, meta — codesmithy @ 10:23 pm

Lea Anne was a commenter on the “90 Minutes in Heaven: One Atheist’s Perspective” post. I decided to answer in another post because it was getting off-topic and to give it more space.

In my first response, Lea Anne expresses her frustration with me making a big deal out of stuff I say doesn’t happen. In the context of the “90 Minutes in Heaven” post, I told her that I didn’t feel I was making a “big deal” out of it. I had merely read the book, at the prompting of another Christian, and wrote what I thought about it. Lea Anne felt that I had misconstrued the context of her question.

The “Big Deal” that I was talking about was the fact you don’t believe there is a God, not about the book. You’re whole website is devoted to disproving that God is real.

Let’s look at the most popular pages on this website:

Yes, “90 Minutes in Heaven” is top, followed by
Energy Ignorance: Making Saltwater Burn
Marie Antoinette and “Let Them Eat Cake”
Reuters Falls for Water-Powered Car Hoax
Aftermath of Spanish-American War Applied to Iraq
Robert Murray: Sociopath

So, I wouldn’t say the whole website is devoted to “disproving that God is real.” In fact, depending on define God, there are some claims about God I have no quarrel with. For example, pantheists say God is the universe that we are one with. That seems perfectly true to me, but indubitably confusing. So a truer statement would be: a portion of the website is devoted to explaining why claims for the existence of the Christian God are invalid or insufficient. I’ll have to work on making that a bit pithier.

I brought up Jephthah, and Lea Anne asked:

What do you like about Jephthah?

There is nothing I like about Jephthah. It is a cruel story in a book that is filled with cruel stories made all the more tragic by the fact there actually isn’t a celestial dictator pulling the strings, just a father killing his daughter for no good reason. Just like all the “witches” that have been burned to death for giving the “evil eye” or “cursing” people. Superstition kills.

What seems to me to be the best way to prevent future tragedies like these is to diffuse the lunacy before it becomes a dangerous cancer. This can be done by exerting social pressure by expressing incredulity.

You think there are aliens behind the Hale-Bopp comet who will transport you to paradise? Give us your evidence.

This wisdom has been with us for ages and was probably put best in this fable by Aesop.

THE LEAP AT RHODES
A certain man who visited foreign lands could talk of little when he returned to his home except the wonderful adventures he had met with and the great deeds he had done abroad.
One of the feats he told about was a leap he had made in a city Called Rhodes. That leap was so great, he said, that no other man could leap anywhere near the distance. A great many persons in Rhodes had seen him do it and would prove that what he told was true.
“No need of witnesses,” said one of the hearers. “Suppose this city is Rhodes. Now show us how far you can jump.”
Deeds count, not boasting words.

Lea Anne also asked me some questions about my education after I tried to explain that the exact and spontaneous formation of the Y-chromosome was unbelievable as a leap in one generation, but can be explained as a result of a long history of evolutionary change.

How do you know all that you know?

Skeptical and critical inquiry.

Did you read it somewhere? I’m curious to know where all this expertise comes from?

A lot of it comes from books I read, but the books aren’t an end in themselves. Good books are like good teachers, and they take you through a process or a journey.

For example, I’ve been reading “The Great Equations” by Robert P. Crease. The first equation it gives is the Pythagorean theorem: the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, or c*c = b*b + a*a. The book explains the profound impact Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem had on Thomas Hobbes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually give the proof. So I looked it up online and went through it until I understood it. Understanding the proof wasn’t just memorizing the steps Euclid took and regurgitating it. In fact, I probably can’t reproduce Euclid’s proof word for word. What I can do is produce a proof based on the same ideas and arguments Euclid used. Instead of having a bunch of disconnected facts, I have a bunch of ideas that take me in the right direction. Finding specifics is as simple as using Google.

But you just can’t read it, you have to apply it also. One could read Terry Eagleton for ages and all you would have at the end of it is a brain full of mush like he does.  This is what I think was the major failing of medieval scholasticism, they never questioned the book.

November 7, 2009

A Different Response to Virginia O’Hanlon

Filed under: culture, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 11:04 am

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

VIRGINIA O’HANLON.
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET

Virginia, your little friends are right. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe on faith. They do not blindly trust stories that don’t comport with their daily experience. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insignificant spec, as compared with the incomprehensibly vast universe we inhabit, but we struggle to comprehend what we can, face the unknown, and hold out hope that with honest and brave exploration we can push aside what we might wish were true and come to a better understanding of the way the world actually is.

Yes, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. There is no reason to believe a man in a red suit comes down your chimney to leave you presents for Christmas morning. It is most likely your parents who leave you your presents. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were a Santa Claus. To be subject to constant surveillance and to have an entity with the pretense of objectivity judging children’s morality who apparently bestows the best presents for children of the wealthy while bestowing more deserving children lesser gifts because their family is poor. It would be a world of deep injustice and arbitrary morality by a capricious being.

Believe in Santa Claus! You might as well believe in fairies, Big Foot, homeopathy, astrology, alchemy, and every other woo or contradictory nonsense. There is an asymmetry between proof and disproof. Some will say we cannot disprove Santa Claus, and this is true. Similarly, we cannot disprove that a being exists in the universe such that, if Santa Claus exists, this being would cause the universe to implode. Obviously, Santa Claus and this anti-Santa Claus are mutually contradictory by definition, we cannot disprove either, but at the same time, logic demands that they cannot both be true. So, what is important is not what we cannot disprove but rather the positive, objective evidence we have for believing something is true.

Positive evidence, observation, experimentation, skepticism, logic and reason, these are the tools of science; our candle in the dark. Using these tools makes us truly open-minded, for it let’s us accept new ideas while filtering and discarding bad ones. Faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance all have their place. But, Virginia, when it comes to understanding what is real, science is the undisputed leader.

No Santa Claus! This is merely one conclusion. The conclusion is not the important part, it is allowed to change and refined as one’s understanding develops. What is important is the process. There is no shame in being wrong for the right reasons, perhaps because you were told by someone you trusted. However, there is a shame not being willing to change your mind, or misleading others even if you have noble pretensions about a greater good.

I assure you, there is a grandeur to this scientific view of life; to see the world as it is, instead of how we would like it be. To love the lily for the color it is, as opposed to being so petty as to paint it. With this view, the world can be cold. It can be cruel, but there is a beauty to it that no myth can compare. Men’s imaginations, like our minds are small. There is enough true mystery in the universe, beyond our imagining, to explore for thousands of years, nay ten times ten thousand years. We have little need conceited tales of imagined self-importance. So, go out, explore, there is a whole universe waiting to be understood.

September 16, 2009

The Only Show On Earth: The Evidence for Creation

Filed under: books, humor, religion, science — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 10:26 am

John Crace produced a piece of satire of Richard Dawkins’ new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.  The good professor complained in the comments that he thought it was off the mark.  Crace didn’t really capture Dawkin’s flavor.  So, I decided to give it a go.  I used an excerpt from “The Times” as the basis. It probably follows the original too closely, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to defend myself from charges of plagirism, but hopefully it hits the mark of a hypothetical bizarro-Dawkins, who I’ve named Dick Rowlings.

Quick, Hide the Children!  The Evolutionists are Coming!

An excerpt from The Only Show On Earth: The Evidence for Creation by Jesus’ Chaplain Dick Rowlings

Imagine that you are a Sunday School teacher eager to impart your knowledge of the Bible into young children. Now, the Bible is a very long book and it takes repetition, repetition and more repetition before those young ones will stop asking silly questions and just accept what they are being told. Yet you find your time continually preyed upon by a baying pack of mis-educated young children who insist that we share a common ancestor with all living creatures. Therefore there was no Adam and Eve as it is written in Genesis, and therefore there was no original sin.

Instead of devoting your full attention to explaining how God gave us rainbows as a sign that He would never flood the whole world again, you are forced to divert your time and energy to a rearguard defense of the propositions that God exists and the foundational doctrines of the church! A proposition that would make you weep like a statue of Mary if you weren’t so busy repeating: the Bible is true, because it is the word of God, because it says so!

Fashionably, liberal Christians chime in to insist that the story of the flood and creation are just allegory. Good thing they aren’t real Christians, because this is a slippery-slope. Once you accept the fact some of the Bible might not be true, you start questioning every part. It is no longer good enough to say the Bible is true, because it is the word of God, because it says so! You would need evidence independent of God’s word in order to decide the question, which is just silly because what better evidence could you have than God’s word?

The plight of many religious teachers is no less dire. When they attempt to impart the central and guiding principles of faith, they are harassed with unending questions and constantly admonished for their answers, as if God’s own words were not good enough. It is a sad state of affairs to have one’s time wasted with smirks and folded arms of obviously misdirected children. It is requires many discussions with the children’s parents before they will start to display the proper attitude (I find threatening to take away their Christmas presents to be particularly effective in adjusting children’s attitudes, Jesus is the reason for the season after all).

It is frequently, and correctly, said by many prominent scientists and engineers that science, in principle, has nothing to say about religion. Steven Jay Gould, an atheist and biologist, promoted “non-overlapping magisteria” which is another way of saying that science is a trade, and that is all it is, a trade. We can look at the scientists themselves for proof of this, always pointing out how studying E. Coli bacteria will allow us to create new drugs for fighting  drug resistant bacteria that spontaneously came into existence (I suspect this is part of God’s plan to keep the scientists employed.  Isn‘t He so thoughtful?).

Science may show us how to build a better mouse-trap, with the help of a little divine inspiration of course, but science tells us nothing about the universe we inhabit or helps us understand where we came from or where we are going. For that, we need the Bible. Thinking that science reveals any truth about the nature of our existence is “scientism” which is obviously a wrongheaded philosophy because it doesn’t accept the authority of the Bible, God‘s own words!

The Only Show on Earth is about the positive evidence for creation. The Bible already provides 100% certainty that we were specially created in God’s own image. But, I will provide additional evidence that makes us at least 1,000,000% sure.

We are like detectives who come on the scene after a crime has been committed. The murderer’s actions have vanished into the past. This is exactly why the only reliable evidence we will have is written eyewitness testimony of the being who was actually there: God. This is not intended as an anti-atheist book. I’ve done that, it’s another very tall hat and slightly different collar. Although, I’m happy to say “Those Deluded Atheists” has apparently become a little bit of an international best-seller with brisk sales in Turkey.

By the end of this book you will see that creation is an inescapable fact, and we should praise God’s astonishing power. Hallelujah! God created everything within us, around us, between us, and his works are present in the flowers, the clouds and especially rainbows (for more about rainbows see my book “God Gave Us Rainbows, The End.”) Given that, none of us were around when God created everything, we shall revisit the metaphor of the detective having to blindly rely on eyewitness testimony. We all know that there is no more reliable and trustworthy source of evidence than eyewitness testimony, but it is better than that. It is the eyewitness testimony of the most honest, intelligent, loving and interesting being you could possibly wish to meet, and someday, some of us will. I will also show how we can use this testimony to integrate other facts that some atheistic evolutionists claim refute creation such as, the similarities of DNA code that fall neatly into a family tree. Well thanks to the eyewitness testimony we know that this is actually proof of God reusing the same designs, isn‘t He so smart? Vestigial organs, we know these serve purposes in the body, such as the newly discovered ability of the appendix to help fight infection.  A truth real Christians knew before those scientists with their microscopes could figure it out.  Fossils?  The result of the flood. The list goes on and on. In short, you won’t put down this book doubting creation, because if you do, you are calling God a liar!

Did I say 1,000,000% certain? More like 10,000,000%.

September 14, 2009

The Strange Case of Robert Wright

Filed under: culture, religion — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:36 am

Robert Wright is a journalist and co-founder of Bloggingheads.tv Bloggingheads.tv is a site that hosts webcam discussions between public intellectuals. Recently, there has been a minor exodus of science luminaries (Sean Carroll, Carl Zimmer, P.Z. Myers, Phil Plait) because Bloggingheads.tv hosted discussions with Paul Nelson, a young earth creationist, and Michael Behe, a proponent of Intelligent Design, which led to a falling out.

On an appearance on the Colbert Report, Wright refused to call himself an atheist, but also stated he didn’t believe in the “Abrahamic” faiths, or any claims of special revelation. He stated that he thought that there could be a larger moral purpose unfolding on earth.

On the Report, Wright was pitching his new book “The Evolution of God.” Jerry Coyne has a lengthy review in “The New Republic.” Wright has also written a response to the Coyne’s critique.

After I read the review I thought the book was merely wrong. After reading the response, it appears to be something worse, clouded. As Coyne puts it in the end of his review:

It is remarkable that a book called The Evolution of God can be so pusillanimous, so dodgy, about the question of whether or not there is a God. Surely the question of God’s existence is the fulcrum upon which any discussion of God must rest. If the entity in his book’s title does not exist, then his book is much, much less than it purports to be. But Wright is content with waffling, and with guarded speculation. When he finally comes to the big question–is there in fact a God who is pulling humanity toward morality?–he suddenly becomes humble and retiring.

But the most damning is Wrights own admission near the end of his response:

Well, (1) I’m only talking about progress along one dimension—a growing circle of moral inclusion, even across ethnic and national bounds, that is visible in most places across millennia, though not necessarily across decades or even centuries. This is the progress that Peter Singer documented in his book The Expanding Circle, that Steven Pinker has noted and theorized about, and that many other thinkers acknowledge as well.

What falsifiable claim is Wright making here? I can’t find one. Singer and Pinker explain moral progress as expanding the realm of moral consideration. For example, the difference between vegetarians and non-vegetarians usually revolves around whether non-human animals are worthy of moral consideration. For the militantly omnivorous, the answering is an absolute “no” which usually manifests itself in the form of “animals are tasty.” But what is Wright’s claim? Nationalism and ethnic prejudice are in decline?

One of the things that makes this claim so meaningless is the timescale. Wright demands that we have to look at it in terms of millennia. But the topic under discussion is “Abrahamic” faiths. So for Christianity we’d have two data points, Islam, even less. Judaism may give us several but it is not missionary, there is little to no focus on conversion.

Wright is conflating an empirical fact teleological purpose. There has been moral progress. This moral progress is manifestly due to expanding spheres of moral consideration. However, it is also historically contingent. That is, early Christianity represented a giant leap backwards. Polytheistic religions lend themselves to pluralism more easily than monotheistic ones do.

Wright seems to admit as much. From his response:

An ethical decline in the transition from polytheism to monotheism is contrary to my view? I encourage Professor Coyne to dip into chapters 6 and 7, “From Polytheism to Monolatry” and “From Monolatry to Monotheism.” The core argument is that ancient Israel moved from a polytheism that reflected a tolerant cosmopolitanism (sponsored by kings with internationalist foreign policies) to a monotheism that was, at its birth during the Babylonian exile, belligerent and retributive (and whose emergence had been abetted by highly nationalist kings, notably the brutally authoritarian Josiah). I expressly dismiss (p. 173) the view that monotheism was “morally universalistic from its birth,” saying, “a candid reading of exilic texts leads to a less heartwarming conclusion—that the universalism present at monotheism’s birth may not deserve the qualifier ‘moral.’” I add, “If you look at the earliest biblical texts that plainly declare the arrival of monotheism and you ask which of their various sentiments seems to most directly motivate that declaration, the answer would seem closer to hatred than to love, closer to retribution than to compassion. To the extent that we can tell, the one true God—the God of Jews, then of Christians, and then of Muslims—was originally a god of vengeance.”

Doesn’t that directly undermine his thesis? I don’t hold out any hope of Wright admitting this since it obviously didn’t occur to him when he wrote it. The truth is his thesis appears to be so nebulous that it can’t be meaningfully contradicted. It is surprising that people can apparently write over 500 pages of this kind of drivel. Although, I guess it should be more surprising that more people buy it. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it seems that books should accomplish something and arrive somewhere. When they fail to do so, they commit a literary offence.

Which brings us to another point, is it mere coincidence that Wright presents such muddled thinking in his book and his promotion of creationist garbage on Bloggingheads.tv? When you are not clear-thinking, does that have a pernicious effect on your acceptance of other wafflers? I think a stronger case could be made for this than anything Wright proffers in “The Evolution of God.”

May 30, 2009

Ravi Zacharias, Socrates’ Daimonion, and Liberation

Filed under: godlessness — codesmithy @ 11:25 pm

Ryan asked:
Have I heard of Ravi Zacharias?

Yes I have. Like Dinesh D’Souza, I have little interest in reading the books he has written. I’ve listened to some lectures of his, although not the one Ryan offered. I couldn‘t make it through the first segment of the one Ryan provided because it runs off the rails from the start. From my limited exposure to Zacharias, my understanding of his argument is that he sees Christianity as the best solution to existential questions.

I basically see this as a repackaging of Pascal’s Wager. I can say my beliefs just don’t work like that. There is something that lets me know when I’m not being honest with myself. Socrates described something similar, which he called a “daimonion.” It literally means “divine something” in Greek, but I don’t know if Socrates literally meant it as a supernatural force. This might just be an instance of language getting in the way of communication. Regardless of whether Socrates believed his “daimonion” to be supernatural, I feel something similar that I don’t ascribe to the supernatural. Like other intangible feelings, it is hard to say if everyone experiences it the same way, or even experiences it at all. Maybe other people don’t have this “daimonion” and can believe whatever they wish to believe. All I am saying is that I have a “voice”, for lack of a better term, that won’t let me do that. It isn’t necessarily loud, but it is very persistent. This “daimonion” is a central part of my inner life. It is a source of doubt. It motivates me to try to learn new things and encourages me to question and verify what I think I know. I don’t know what Zacharias’ suggestion for wrestling with my “daimonion” is, but my “daimonion” recognizes that his is an argument from consequences, and to believe in Christianity, to believe Jesus was literally raised from the dead, the son and part of the tri-union God, born of a virgin, turned water into wine, walked on water etc. because it resolves some existential issues that I face would be the definition of delusional thinking.

From reading what some Christians have written, some seem to be aware of this experience of a “daimonion” as well. Since it tends to erode their faith, they seem to think it is Satan trying to lead them to go astray. Pascal seems to be aware of it as well and suggests to ignore it, and hope that it will go away in time. I consider this repression akin to the church’s repression of sex, and it has similar consequences: needless dysfunction and suffering.

I know this isn’t what apologetics means in this particular context, but I do wish Christian apologists would actually apologize. A good start would be apologizing for the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria who was killed by a Christian mob. If Christ died for our sins, Hypatia died for our ignorance. As a Christian, I don’t know how you could bear the suffering of this woman. She was dragged behind a chariot and flayed. Her quivering limbs tossed into flames. However, as a Christian, you would have to believe that was just the beginning of her torment. Your God tacitly consents for her to suffer an eternity of similar experiences, just as He tacitly consented to suffering she experienced in this life. I ask, what kind of justice is that?

In this respect, it is not enough to just say that the Bible is entirely implausible, which it is. We also need liberate ourselves from the desire to wish it were true. If the Bible were true, it wouldn’t be good news, it would be bad news. It would mean there was a celestial bully who commands that you love and fear Him. He makes you sick and punishes you for not being well. That our sins can be forgiven by sacrificing the innocent. A being exists that can and will convict you of thought crime. A being from which there is no hope of liberation and which you will never be able to overthrow. If you think Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984 was bad, that is nothing compared to heaven and heaven is the best you can hope for. The prospect of eventual annihilation and eternal oblivion is certainly a source of personal anxiety, the supreme existential crisis that Zacharias says Christianity resolves. I’m not arguing that it doesn’t, but as an existential choice, I wish more people recognized what an utterly revolting choice it is. It should be the choice we pick when we have no other options left, and even then with some trepidation and reluctance. Thankfully, there is no credible evidence for believing it to be true, and good reasons for believing it actually false.

We do live in a great age. Our knowledge has progressed that probability of the prospect of sacrificing your liberty and surrendering your conscience in this life in the hope of avoiding eternal torment in favor of suffering an eternal existence in a celestial equivalent of North Korea is so vanishingly small that it is being ignored or outright rejected by a significant and increasing portion of the population in many educated countries. For example, knowing what we know now about chemistry, it is entirely implausible that water can be turned into wine. Knowing what we know now about biology, it is completely implausible that a virgin would give birth to a male offspring.

The underlying reason isn’t that it isn’t just the case that a belief in Jesus requires less faith now, it is that it requires substantially more. Consequently, even from the Christian perspective, I haven’t completely understood the textual basis for condemnation of Thomas the doubter. Jesus said “blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.” Jesus didn’t say it was required to believe in him without seeing him, he just praised those who could. According to the story, Thomas was one of Jesus’ disciples and presumably witnessed at least a few of Jesus’ other miracles and got a personal visit after Jesus rose from the dead. On the other hand, we are expected to believe, just as reverently, based on hearsay from spotty texts, some of which plagiarize each other, about a guy we’ve never physically met, which tell of implausible events that we have not seen any credible physical evidence for, coming out of a particularly illiterate part of the world and are not collaborated by independent contemporaneous secular accounts. If lots of people got up from their graves and started walking around Jerusalem, one would think someone else would make a note of it, or at least it would be in all of the gospels and not just in Matthew.

To make this point clear, I’ll draw a parallel with homeopathy. I’m not going to accept the fact that water has “memory” of let’s say onion juice, even when we know from chemistry that some of the solutions that so dilute that there is unlikely to be any molecules from the onion juice remaining, and similarly how the water “remembers” the onion juice but presumably forgets the urine, or how this exactly “memory” of onion juice helps these water molecules cure an ailment any better than a regular molecule would. That is to say, how exactly do these water molecules behave differently than other ones that don’t have a recent “memory” of onion juice? Similarly, I’m not going to accept a human man can be born of a virgin until I get a plausible explanation of where the Y-chromosome came from. I would accept parthenogenesis if the offspring were female and people noted the striking resemblances between Mary and her daughter. If this daughter then went on to tell the world about germs, atoms, stars and galaxies, spoke of Neptune and Pluto approximately 2000 years ago, I think we would have good reasons for believing some type unexplained intervention took place. Jesus’ miracles, in contrast, become increasingly discredited and provincial as our knowledge expands. Given the trend, I find it hard not to draw the obvious conclusion.

In summary, I have considered an outline of Ravi Zacharias’ argument. If you feel I am misrepresenting it, I assure you it is completely unintentional and please feel free to correct me in the comments. While I admit Christianity is a solution to the existential crises we all face, I don’t feel the solution that Christianity offers is at all desirable and is among one of the last options that I would choose, even then only if the evidence, logic and reason forced me, and with great reluctance and sorrow, for it would mean we could never be truly free. It would mean as tragic and pointless I find the suffering of poor Hypatia of Alexandria to be as an atheist. As a Christian, I would have to believe it was just an insignificant prelude to the torments the being I am compelled to worship, upon the fear of my own torment and punishment, has in store and will tacitly allow her to endure for all eternity. Thus, I freely thank all that it good that there is not a shred of credible evidence to support such a lamentable state of affairs and there are quite good reasons for believing that it is actually false. If that were not good enough, the reasons for not believing are actually getting sounder as time progresses and our knowledge expands, and I find no reason to believe this trend won’t continue far into the future as well.

This is usually the end of my interest in apologetics for I have no reason to find rationalizations for beliefs I have no desire to have in the first place independent of my “daimonion.” (Although, I occasionally can’t help myself from commenting if an apologist starts making a particularly inane claim.) However, what would convince me in one God over others is physical evidence. For example, someone showing that praying to a particular God produced better outcomes than praying to any other God under suitable controls. It wouldn’t satisfy all my objections, but it wouldn’t be something I could ignore either. This is why I didn’t really mind taking the time to read something like “90 Minutes in Heaven.” Although, I won’t spend all my time doing it, because I find many reports of miracles won’t stand up to even the most modest skepticism. I would rather just read the ones the Christians themselves find the most credible and respond to those. I think “90 Minutes in Heaven” meets that criteria. From the outset, reading apologia, like Zacharias’, just doesn’t interest me because I don’t see how it could even begin to without more evidence. Maybe you could give me some factoid from a book that would pique my interest. For example, maybe there is a book where an archeologist retraces the steps of Jesus in the Bible, finds good historical evidence for the site of the country of Gadarenes and subsequent finds the remains of a large herd of pigs in a sea or what probably was a sea 2000 years ago. Furthermore, the remains can be carbon dated to around Jesus’ time and this author got his results published in a secular peer-reviewed archeological journal thus confirming some basic facts given in the account given Matthew 8 and other gospels. Even this most likely wouldn’t convince me to become a Christian, but it is something I would find interesting to read with evidence I would accept, especially if I could see pictures of the pig bones.

Maybe you consider my refusal to read Zacharias’ book unsatisfactory or disingenuous. I’m sorry if you feel that way, but I can’t possibly read every book any one can demand of me. If you satisfactorily address the above objections, can point to some quotes in which makes it clear I’m misrepresenting Zacharias’ argument, or make a better case for why as to why I will find Zacharias’ book the least bit interesting, I assure you, I will honestly consider it. In my defense, try putting yourself in my shoes, and imagine someone suggesting that you consider the arguments for Baal more carefully. I hope from that perspective, you might consider my position more justified.

May 11, 2009

How Can One Take Terry Eagleton Seriously?

Filed under: books, culture, religion — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:21 am

Terry Eagleton has a new book called “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.” Eagleton is a literature professor and Marxist. So, it comes as a little bit of a surprise that he seeks to defend the theory and practice of religion against its contemporary critics. Nevermind that Marx said religion was the “opiate” of the people and Marx’s philosophy is fundamentally atheistic; it was supposed to be scientific and utopian after all.

What Eagleton represents is someone who embraces the communist caricature of Marxism, a political movement which invented its own mysticism in the guise of dialectic materialism and became a secular equivalent to a toxic religion. Eagleton is a person who sees Jesus as some kind of proto-Marxist. In other words, a man who can only see things as he wishes them to be, not as they are.

Hence, we are faced with the Eagleton conundrum: the only way to protect one’s own irrational dogma is to protect them all. Unfortunately, the insanity of such an endeavor quickly manifests itself in obvious ways, as Eagleton does in his book, conflating Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins into the malevolent spirit he christens “Ditchkins.” Any serious discussion of Eagleton ends with the discovery of this delusional fantasy. Eagleton is no longer arguing against real critics of religion, he is arguing against chimeras of his own imagination.

One might complain about the supposed school-yard mentality of Dawkins and Hitchens. Don’t they know God can be the first cause because He (and it is almost invariably a He despite the fact that there seems to be no good reason why God would have genitalia if He was the only God) is eternal? No, because this issue has never been adequately met by theologians or apologists despite their sophistry and centuries to come up with a satisfactory answer. A theistic God, by definition, must be incredibly complex being and capable of observing, recognizing and resolving issues of unimaginable complexity.

Sure, a theistic God could explain the universe, but it falls well short of a good explanation for the following reason: however unlikely we find the possibility that the universe itself just came into existence by itself, we must admit that possibility that a complex God just popped into existence, or more unfathomably is eternal, and then created the universe is more improbable, and by a considerable degree.

From watching a one of Eagleton’s Yale lectures, it is obvious that he is not defending anything similar to Christianity as laymen practice it. Hence, having Eagleton defend religion is like having Michael Ruse defend science, one is never quite sure they get it. I have a hard time telling what distinction Eagleton would make between God and the numinous. It is quite possible he sees them as one in the same, but stripping the superstition out of religion is not a concession most believers are willing to make.

Eagleton makes the claim that God is not a Yeti. Yes, yetis aren’t invisible, aren’t able to read your thoughts, aren’t immortal, aren’t capable of altering natural laws of the universe, won’t convict you of thought crime, won’t punish you even after you die and don’t have a strange fetish about foreskins.

What Eagleton is clearly engaging in here is the time honored tradition of sophistry. He bemoans Dawkins running around in Oxford circles, and Hitchens in Washington, while simultaneously publishing a book based on lectures he gave at Yale. Yale! When Eagleton starts giving lectures at the atheist equivalents of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, next-door to Liberty University, or the University of Nebraska when resolutions are being drafted against him, then Eagleton will have a leg to stand on. Eagleton’s faux-populist appeal against the supposed elitism of atheists is only effective with a particular brand of unreflective, deluded hypocrites like Eagleton and students at Yale who are well on their way to being crafted in the mould of one of their famous alumni, George W. Bush.

Thus we reach an inescapable conclusion that Eagleton is a coward, a sophist, and a deluded hypocrite. He exists in a fog, with a mind addled by the over-study of pointless subjects. I can only hope he finds the good sense to actually listen and learn, so he might produce something of productive value to our species instead of retarding it by continuing to muddy the intellectual waters.

April 16, 2009

Challenge Accepted

Filed under: culture, religion — codesmithy @ 6:27 am

A commenter calling himself Will left the following message:

Guys, just take a look around us…I challenge you to take an honest look at the evidence for evolution, an honest look at the evidence for a worldwide flood, the fulfilled prophecy of the old testament, just because there are many “religions” does not mean that Jesus is not the savior of the world…God does not want our religion, he wants our hearts!

I accept this challenge, although I already find it a little bit insulting.  I have looked at the evidence for evolution, a global flood, and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and have apparently come to the exact opposite set of conclusions the commenter has.

Evolution has been proved, to the extent that any scientific theory can be proved, well beyond any reasonable doubt.  Read Jerry A. Coyne’s book “Why Evolution is True” for an outline.  But, some of the evidence that supports evolution include: the fossil record, atavisms, the flaws in our body plan (vestigial organs like the appendix, causes of back-pain, blind spots, hiccups), the patterns we find in biodiversity with respect to geography, none of which are explained by young earth creationism.

A global flood is completely unsupported by any credible physical evidence.  Since a global flood would presumably leave some traces behind, any story of a global flood is almost certainly false beyond a reasonable doubt.

As for the fulfilled prophecy, this would be strong evidence in favor of Christianity if the predictions were specific, falsifiable and otherwise inexplicable.  Similarly, if praying to one God versus another God or Gods or not praying at all really did cause significantly better outcomes for patients recovering from heart surgery (beyond that which can be explained by placebo), this would be evidence for the power of prayer.  That said, such studies have been done and they have found that prayers have no effect.  Which I think illustrates the fundamental difference between free thinkers such as myself and believers, I accept facts like these and try to modify my beliefs accordingly.  The religious hem and haw, engage in apologetics and generally just stick their head in the sand and drag their feet.

As for Biblical prophecy, Jim Lippard gives a good explanation as to why some atheists, myself included, find the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy to be so un-compelling.

Will is correct though.   The presence of other religions of the world does not imply Christianity is false.  However, these religions make contradictory claims so they all can’t be true.  Thus, the inescapable conclusion is that a good portion of the people on the planet must be deluded when it comes to their religious beliefs.  The question is: what evidence do you have to show that you are not one of the deluded ones?

Some evidence that you might want to consider on answering the question to whether or not you are deluded is if you are rejecting the conclusions of people who clearly are more expert that yourself in demonstrable areas.  Science has proven itself to be the objective leader in improving our understanding about the universe we inhabit.  I, quite literally, owe my life to science.  My father had an appendicitis in college which was long before he met my mother.  In earlier generations, such an infection would have been fatal, but thanks to antibiotics and modern medicine he survived.  This ignores all the countless ways science has improved quality of my life, from the food I eat, to the water I drink, to the books I read, to the computer I use, to the car I drive, etc.  As such, I feel no luxury to pick and choose which parts of science I accept and those that I reject when such conclusions are based on the same method and doing so would be based on mere convenience.  Similarly, I wouldn’t feel the luxury to pick and choose which parts of the Bible I would have to follow if I were to believe it was the inspired word of God and Jesus was his only son while simultaneously being God.  So, tell me, do you save?  Do you think about the future?  Do you love your enemies?  If I were to hit you, would you honestly turn the other cheek?  Do you really think it is ethical to live your life by such teachings?   Do you honestly aspire to?

For Will particularly, the IP address he sent this message from was the United States Air Force Academy.  Do you honestly see no incompatibility to the teachings of the savior you proclaim to follow and your actions?  If not, then please tell me, who would Jesus bomb?

April 14, 2009

Atheist Behaving Badly

Filed under: politics, religion — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:11 am

In general, I don’t like criticizing other atheists. For example, I am not going to criticize Dan Barker and the Freedom From Religion Foundation for his display at the Washington state Capitol even though I would have added “We believe” as a preface. Nor am I going to criticize the atheist bus campaign of “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” although I would personally have preferred “almost certainly” as opposed to “probably.” My attitude is: at least they are doing something.

I understand that atheism constitutes a diverse set of people and views. As such, it is unlikely that one that there will be complete consensus on every issue. For example, I’ve criticized Hitchens for his stance on the Iraq war. I’ve also criticized Shermer for his assertions about free market capitalism. I was disappointed with Harris’ stance on torture.

In some ways this is unfortunate because if Hitchens deserves criticism for his support for the Iraq war, then William Kristol deserves as much if not more. There are many things I deeply respect about Hitchens. I think it was exemplified by his willingness to be water-boarded in order to determine if it were torture. I can only wish Harris had an iota of that integrity. But, I find these issues separate from advocacy for atheism, for which I want to show some degree solidarity even if I might disagree with particular tactics or would do things differently.

That said, I ran across these videos where an atheist was suing for libel over a bumper-sticker and I feel it would be disingenuous not to criticize it. One reason is that it is so beyond the par. The second reason is that it encapsulates the same line of reasoning that I criticize religious people for employing. Therefore, it would show a definite lack of integrity if I was aware of it and didn‘t criticize it.

Here is Patrick Greene explaining his lawsuit on the Atheist Experience.



Threatening baseless lawsuits is a bullying tactic and it is counterproductive. No one has the right not to be offended. We may think less of people who are unnecessarily provocative or offensive (Ann Coulter comes to mind), but the best way to handle it is to ignore them or to criticize them. Show these people that they have no place in civilized discourse until they change their ways. Don’t sue. A baseless suit gives them credibility as a victim and feeds into every negative stereotype one could have about atheists.

As it stands today, atheism only exists as an aspect of a free society. We are wholly dependent on our ability to hold and share views that others find offensive. While I do feel that criticism should be somewhat proportional to the size of a person’s forum, taking legal action is equivalent to using the nuclear option. Suing the state for violating the separation of church and state is one thing; suing individuals for expressing their views on their own property is another. Patrick Greene is a fool for thinking otherwise.

April 7, 2009

On Distancing One’s Self from the “New Atheists”

Filed under: culture, media, religion — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 8:44 am

The concern-trolling, many-truths Madeleine Bunting takes another opportunity to complain about those loud and certain new atheists.  Bunting apparently finds them as annoying as the fundamentalists.  

In a way, I wish Bunting were a pastor.  When I went to church growing up, we sang songs about how much Jesus loved us and how one would know it (it’s in the Bible in case you couldn’t guess).  We also sang about Noah’s flood during Bible camp.  Now, I grew up in Western Michigan, which is conservative but I didn’t consider the church radical.  We were Methodists afterall.  It is odd that no one mentioned the fact that there is actually no evidence for Noah’s flood or that rainbows are caused by white light separating out into different wave lengths.  It is one thing to say that Noah’s flood should be given the same status as Santa Claus from the luxury of an ivory tower, but doubting the supposedly divinely inspired word of God when no one in your culture does  is another.

Case in point, when I was in elementary school I knew the basics of sexual reproduction even if I didn’t know the exact mechanics.  The one thing I did know is that it took a male and a female.  So, we apply this rule and try to make it jive with the creation story of Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve begat Cain and Abel.  Cain kills Abel.  Now what?  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had stumbled upon the wife of Cain problem.  I asked my parents and they told me to ask our pastor, which I did.  Now here is a quiz for Ms. Bunting.  Did the pastor tell me a) the story can’t be taken literally or b) there were other people contemporaneous with Cain?  

If Bunting chose option a, she would be wrong.  He told me there were other people that God apparently created.  This should not surprise anyone.  This is how religion behaves.  Sure, the theologian may defend God as a transcendent purpose and a vague intellectual absolute when debating with atheist, but know, in the churches there is no hint, absolutely no indication, that anything you are told shouldn’t be taken as if it were the literal truth especially when a child asks an honest question.  How else could a child interpret it?  Pastors are authority figures.  It would be one thing if peddling nonsense was limited to just adults.  It is quite another thing when children are the explicit targets.

Here is another case study.  At Christmas, one of my nieces exclaimed “Happy Birthday Jesus” which I took the opportunity to correct.  Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday; it is the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth.  I don’t blame my niece for this misunderstanding.  Generally, we celebrate people’s birth on their birthdays.  It is just in this case, we don’t.  In fact, the best evidence in the Bible suggests Jesus was born in the spring, not during the winter solstice.  So, why do we celebrate Jesus. birth during the winter solstice?  This isn’t a question I should have to answer.  It is one that any intellectually honest person in a church should at least mention during Sunday school or at least give some hint of future revelation.  Instead, we see the clergy carefully construct sentences that give no hint of the underlying history which they know or should know.  This is not coincidence, and the reason it will never happen is transparent: it is inconvenient.

It is easier for the church to act as if the creation story, the virgin birth, walking on water, water into wine, Noah’s flood, Jonah’s fish adventure, etc. are true than to defend their obvious nonsense.  Who is to blame when someone calls the church on its misleading duplicity?  According to Blunting, the blame belongs to the new atheists and their certainty.

It is telling that Blunting is never specific about what the new atheists are so certain about.  Dawkins rates the probability of their being a theistic god at approximately the same probability there are fairies under the garden.  From the evidence I’ve seen, I concur with that assessment.  Now, I am willing to change my mind if compelling evidence to contrary appears.  Dawkins has previously stated his commitment to do the same.  But given the claims are so extraordinary, it would require evidence many times greater than that for evolution, as an example.

For my part, the chain of coincidences would have to be so great it would be more likely that I had gone insane than the existence of Jehovah been proved, that is how deep the gulf that runs between my conception of what a universe would look like if Jehovah actually exists and the one I perceive myself as inhabiting.  It is would also be more probable that I were experiencing an atheistic universe inside a theistic one.  Such notions are a foundation of solipsism, where observable reality plays no role in informing our opinion about the universe we inhabit.  There is nothing we can do to disprove solipsism’s radical skepticism, maybe Blunting is looks forward to the day of when we can get rid of the new atheist’s demands for objective evidence and therefore pontificate indefinitely on various aspects of imagined realities without any hope of resolution.  I have no doubt it is easier for the intellectually lazy to be coddled in unassailable ignorance, but a minority of us see a real virtue in trying to view the world as it really is.

In the same theme, Bart Ehrman takes the opportunity to bash the “new atheists” also

Ehrman – who grew up casually Episcopalian, became a fundamentalist in high school, had his faith eroded by decades of studying the Bible’s textual history and now calls himself a “happy agnostic“– seems to be riding the same anti-religion wave that has swept Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens onto the best-seller list and late-night talk shows. But he says that while they share some readers, he tries to distance himself from the so-called new atheists.

“They seem to understand so little about religion,” he told me in a telephone interview. “If somebody attacked science with as little knowledge, they’d be laughed off the map.”

First of all, people attack the theory of evolution and therefore science (because it was discovered using the same method) with considerably less knowledge than any of the “new atheists” mentioned have towards religion. Far from being laughed off the map, it seems to be a prerequisite to getting one elected to the Texas Board of Education, a large state with a correspondingly large biology textbook market where standards they adopt become the de facto standards for many other states. This is a real struggle that has real implications for what children are taught in the biology classroom.

Either Ehrman is saying that the “new atheists” are more ignorant about religion than creationists who attack evolution (keep in mind, Kirk Cameron thinks you should be able to find a chimeran “crocaduck ” because birds and reptiles share a common ancestor and that banana’s are an atheist worst nightmare in spite of hundreds of years of cultivation and selective breeding) or we don’t laugh people off the map according to the criteria Ehrman supposes.

I can’t say that I’m that surprised this is how certain segments of the media portray the “new atheists,” the people with the sheer audacity to challenge establishment views and institutions with clarity and honesty. The central problem religion posses is that we leave our collective moral authority to the prejudices of illiterate goat herders. No matter how benign religion may become, the danger still lurks. All it takes is one charismatic person to look at the text and say, “we have been doing this all wrong, look at what it says right here.” Such people are impossible to deal with on a religious level, because once you accept the fact that the Bible is the infallible, or at least inspired, word of God all else follows. The only way to refute it is to reject the premise. This is something, by definition, a religious believer refuses to do.   Avoiding religious radicalism in the future means fostering secularism today. This is something that all the “new atheists” seem to understand, although apparently lost on Bunting and Ehrman.

March 25, 2009

Questioning Evolution

Filed under: Education, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:55 am

One of the themes of “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” was that there was a dogmatic rejection of Intelligent Design in academia.  There is, in fact, no dogmatic rejection of Intelligent Design on the part of academia.  An acceptance of Intelligent Design as an intelligible explanation for aspects of nature would signal that we had entered into a new dark age.  The most succinct reason Intelligent Design isn’t a good scientific theory is because it doesn’t explain anything.  It is consistent with any and all facts we could discover about the universe including incorrect ones.  We find a natural explanation for the bacterial flagellum, the designer moves on to explain some new mystery.  Intelligent Design is no more than dressed up ignorance and no better than saying “I don’t see how this could have come about naturally, so let’s say Fred did it.”  

Sure, animals look like they have been designed, in the same way the Sun looks like it goes around the Earth.  Darwin explained how we got it backwards.  Animals adapt to their environment through a combination of mutation, inherited traits, differential survival and reproduction.  Darwin presented a substantial amount of evidence to support this view.  Since his time, every piece of credible evidence we have found has supported the general framework he proposed making it one of the best supported scientific theories in history. 

When people say they don’t feel secure about questioning evolution in academia, I say good.  It means reason is still prevailing.  If you choose to question evolution, you better have something more than your ignorance, because if that is all you bring to the table, you have just proven, beyond any shadow of a doubt, your incompetence.

Just like we wouldn’t want a detective who would throw up his hands at every mystery and declare a ghost must have done it, we don’t want to institutionalize ignorance with Intelligent Design.  Making the best decisions possible is contingent on having an accurate view of reality.  Science has proven itself to be the unmatched leader in enhancing our understanding of nature.  It is unfortunate consequence of our limited capacities that scientific knowledge has become so vast that it requires specialization to continue to make rapid progress.  Still, it is criminal to deny children a broad, basic and accurate understanding of what scientists have discovered even if we can‘t present every last detail.  

So, no, it isn’t dogmatic.  It is having standards.  Evolution meets a incredibly high standard for evidentiary support.  The reason why Intelligent Design can’t compete with evolution isn’t because of bias or discrimination, it is because it is remarkably inferior and if you can’t understand that then you have no business in the education system.

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