Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

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 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 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 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 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.

January 27, 2009

Ancestor Worship

Filed under: religion — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:38 am

One of peculiarities of creationists I’ve been thinking about is their seeming dislike for the modern.  For example, in a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Dan Barker, D’Souza states his aim to ignore the “new” atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc.) and instead address the arguments of  people like Russell, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger.  Why Marx doesn’t make the list I don’t know.  He calls the modern atheists the “Lilliputian shadows of the great atheists of the 19th century and early 20th century” ( about 5 minutes in).

Ben Stein, in his movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” also complains about all the things Darwin didn’t know as if new facts undermined rather than strengthened Darwin’s central thesis of evolution by natural selection.

Admittedly, one shouldn’t draw a conclusion by only two data points, but the phenomenon is just so odd.  Even if we were to grant that Russell was a better philosopher than Dennett.  Dennett doesn’t stand in Russell’s shadow; Dennett stands on Russell’s shoulders.  It takes a lot less work to take a good idea that you’ve come across than to come up with it yourself.  Think about all the facts about the world we just know now, like the laws of thermodynamics, atomic theory, Maxwell’s equations, etc.  Let’s do a thought experiment.  Let’s say I found myself on a deserted island at a young age (5-ish) in a land of abundance so I didn’t have to spend my life struggling for existence but rather could easily care for myself.  But let’s also say, I was devoid of human contact and all social artifices.  As such, with nothing else to do, I devoted the rest of my long life (100 years?) to just contemplate the universe and the world around me.  I think it is safe to say, at the end of that life, I would be lucky to have the understanding I had at merely the age of 15 in my current life.

I am not alone in this assessment.  In the Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Dawkins there is excerpt from Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million that maybe puts it better:

In the course of the adventure upon which we are going to embark we shall constantly find that we have no difficulty in answering questions which tortured the minds of very clever mathematicians in ancient times.  This is not because you and I are very clever people.  It is because we inherit a social culture which has suffered the impact of material forces foreign to the intellectual life of the ancient world.

The difference between 19th century and the 21st maybe isn’t as drastic as the ancient and modern, but the 20th century was a time of great scientific progress and technological development.  That is to say, no matter how sagacious we consider Russell, Nietzsche, or Freud to be, the arguments we should consider are their modern incarnations because no matter how brilliant or clever they were, they may have made some mistakes which modern thinkers can correct.  This goes along with the added benefit that the modern thinkers are still alive, so they can respond directly to criticisms instead of leaving us conjecturing about how the dead might respond to a particular argument were they still alive.

The part that is nagging me is that maybe there is actually something deeper going on here.  For example, it is a common canard of creationists to claim that mutations cannot add “information” to the genetic code (i.e. they ignore duplication and its subsequent modification).  But, what if they actually believe progress is impossible.  Let’s say, they really believe creations of every type can only devolve and decay from their original inception.  Russell or Nietzsche were the geniuses who introduced atheism in its purest and strongest form and the “new” atheists can only muster cheap imitations, and knock-offs of these great atheists’ thoughts.

This point of view is absurd for the reasons I outlined above, but it is completely in keeping with ancestor worship; father always knew best, and so did his father, and on and on up the chain.  I guess this isn’t so surprising if they also consider the bible the best book ever written.  However, it is always these types of underlying assumptions that baffle me because the arguments that people like D’Souza present are like waves on top of this deeper idealogical ocean.  I fully admit I might be jumping to conclusions, but there must be some explanation for this behavior.  Although, it might be just a simple as they don’t want to bother reading anything new.

January 26, 2009

Jerry Coyne and Secular Reasoning

Filed under: politics, religion, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:34 am

Jerry Coyne has a new book out called “Why Evolution Is True.”  He also wrote a piece in The New Republic called “Seeing and Believing” where he examines the tensions between science and religion particularly around teaching evolution.  Mr. Coyne examines two books that try to reconcile the apparent incompatibility and thoroughly demolishes them.  In particular, he destroys the argument that science and religion are compatible because there are Christian scientists.  As he puts it:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) 

Coyne does a good job pointing out the incompatibility of liberal theologians and various religious apologizers.  He defends Dawkins attacking mainstream religious belief in “The God Delusion” because that is what people actually believe. As Coyne points out in the following video, 63% of Americans believe in angels, only 40% believe in evolution.

It is hard to debate religion with believers because they are keen to attack science where it is weakest (like first cause, the various physical constants of the universe, or uncertainty in quantum mechanics).  That isn’t to say these are particularly convincing arguments for a deity, but they do represent biggest gaps in current scientific understanding and therefore finding a role for a god there seems most plausible. Such gaps rely on ignorance and usually become more implausible over time.  For example, a virgin birth resulting in a production a male offspring seems more plausible when one knows nothing about chromosomes and the role of sperm in contributing the Y chromosomes, however, with modern genetic understanding such a scenario becomes less believable.  

Likewise, the apologist is hard pressed to defend the weakest aspect of their position, which is the internal consistency of their scripture.  They will twist language, deny plain meaning and arbitrarily pick and choose those parts which they find convenient to defend.  It is this process of picking and choosing, and attacking the language that makes apologetics so detestable; at least the fundamentalist is consistent in principle.

Coyne also points out in the video that simply trying to teach evolution better won’t work.  It is not the strength of the case for the evolution that is the problem, it is that people reject it because it conflicts with their religious beliefs (I find it is dishonest to say that it doesn’t).  Therefore, in order to get people to accept evolution, religious influence has to be rolled back.  

Evolution is a litmus test for a secular society.  If people are rejecting evolution because it conflicts with their previously held superstition, then there is no reasoning with them and any hope for consensus is lost.  In addition, there is no telling what other issues they will dogmatically and stubbornly cling to in the face of contradictory evidence.  A person who is unwilling to change his/her beliefs, especially in the face of overwhelming physical evidence, is a person who does not truly believe in the freedom of belief.  If one is looking for the seed of totalitarianism, there it is and woe for those of us who want to use reason to build a better world.

January 14, 2009

Looking for Help from the Beyond

Filed under: religion, science — codesmithy @ 9:37 am

There have been a few comments that have echoed the sentiment that was relayed by “Blogster”

remember though.. look not to man for salvation, but only to God, the only way to true life

This is in response to a post where I expressed my desperation at trying to have a more rational discussion about energy.  “Blogster” makes it clear that by god he means Jehovah with all of his holy trinity mystery.  There are a few points that I would like to make about this sentiment.  First, in order to look to Jesus for salvation, you are invariably looking to man.  Jesus didn’t write the gospels, men did, and decades after his supposed death and resurrection.  The old testament holds up no better, for example, there is documentary evidence that the first five book of the bible are not, in fact, written by Moses, as the bible itself claims.  This is combined with the fact that the bible has been altered many times through its history as Bart D. Ehrman explores in his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Even if we accept the fact that the book was divinely inspired, which I personally don’t, we must accept the fact that the message itself has been filtered through numerous men who didn’t necessarily believe that altering scripture was wrong.  Origen, an early Christian, lodges this complaint

The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please. -Misquoting Jesus pg. 52

Secondly, there is an issue of what constitutes a true life.  True life is assumed to be eternal.  Unfortunately, eternal life would be hell for any intelligent being with a working memory.  Think about it, you could do everything you ever wanted to do a million times, and still have an eternity to look forward to.  Eternal life ensures an eternity of boredom.  Now, it could be the case that you could have an eternal life and never even know it.  For example, if you had a form of amnesia and you always forgot the events of the previous day, and thus every day of your eternal life was a blank slate.  It would make eternity tolerable, but utterly meaningless as you repeated the same actions over and over and over again without realizing it.  But, even these scenarios aren’t the ones the Christians promise us.  They promise us a totalitarian existence where every moment of eternity is spent praising the father, son, or holy spirit.  Where you live in constant fear of being convicted of thought crimes, yet you sing about the leader’s love for you.  As you endure your existence, there are dungeons where people are being maliciously and eternally tortured for exercising the free will this god gave them and could have predicted their choices.  This is the system of justice the Christian’s “loving” god supposedly set up.  Luckily, there isn’t any credible evidence for it.  Instead of focusing on the Christian “true life,” which seems to me to be tedious or pointless all the while being self-contradictory, I’ll focus on the real one I’m currently experiencing.

As such, I’m not interested in eternal salvation.  I’m worried about salvation in this life.  Salvation in this context means “a means of preserving from harm or unpleasantness.”  I think the best way of doing this is to look to science.  I would fully expect “Blogster” to call this looking to man for salvation, but I don’t see it that way.  Atomic theory, the theory of evolution, the theory of gravity aren’t true because we want them to be true, they are true because they are based on countless observations of the world and universe around us.  Any scientific hypothesis is subjected to a high level of scrutiny, skepticism and self-criticism.  Even when accepted, it is only done so conditionally.  Science is a human endeavor, but the observations are accessible to anyone or anything in principle and therefore are the epitome of not looking to man.  If you care to doubt the results of a particular experiment, then you are encouraged to try to repeat it.  If you find differences, then submit your findings to a scientific peer-reviewed journal.   

Science does not intrinsically tell us right from wrong, but it establishes a basis of knowledge and experience that a bronze-age text just can’t match.  When facing the challenges of our modern era, I would rather do the things that science tells us will help alleviate the problems as opposed to praying for answers or looking to ancient texts.  One can do both, so long as the latter does not compromise the former, otherwise it is a dereliction of duty to your fellow man and might have repercussions for generations to come.

August 25, 2008

From the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

Filed under: Education, politics, religion, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:06 am

The New York Times has a story of a biology teacher in Florida trying to teach evolution.  Obviously it is an uphill battle.  PZ Myers asks whether or not we will ever stop running away from the source of the problem?  The source of problem, in Myers’ opinion, is religion.  I can’t help but draw parallels to Eugene V. Debs who wondered if we ever going to tackle the source of social inequity, which was in Debs’ opinion, capitalism.

Both capitalism and religion are entrenched power structures, in many cases reinforcing.  This is evidenced by the United States adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance to stave off communism.

The goal of science education has to be in honing a certain sensibility.  A sensibility whereby people who examine the same set of evidence draw roughly similar conclusions.  If we draw vastly different conclusions, then it should be on a general acknowledgment among the informed that there is a lack of evidence one way or another.

The fact that religion falls on geo-political fault lines, as Richard Dawkins demonstrates, tells us something.  Namely, religious belief is antithetical to scientific sensibility previously described.  As long as superstition exists, including its institutional manifestation in the form of religion, there will continue to be a culture war.

I will say again, superstition is a terminal disease.  Humans are too clever.  We’ve built weapons that are too dangerous.  We made it these last 50 years by the skin of our teeth.  In case one has been paying attention, the situation is significantly worse today.  Nuclear proliferation has increased, meaning the possibility of a loose nuclear weapon is more probable.  September 11th demonstrated the resolve of religious extremists to kill scores of innocent civilians.  Population has increased.  We are having a measurable effect on the climate of the planet via our use of fossil fuels.  There are vast oceanic dead zones due to pesticides.  We are poisoning the environment, and there is an increasing probability that we will use the most lethal environmental poison we have developed so far, nuclear weapons.

We can no longer afford to entertain ignorant delusions.  It will be the undoing of civilization as we know it.    We must challenge idiocy.  We must also push aside the concern trolling reformers.  One is either for the continued survival of the human species or against it.  Either god is going to save us, or there is no help in sight.  With our collective survival at stake, do you want someone who believes in an invisible man in the sky or someone who will carefully examine the evidence and reach a reasonable conclusion?  Not teaching evolution means we will have more of the former than the later.

I say we must deal with the inconvenient truths of existence instead of shrouding them in fanciful myths.  Having a crippled intellect is no longer a matter of personal vice, but rather a moral failing.  The future depends on the choices we make today.  Failing to educate oneself or hampering the education of others is a dereliction of duty to the species.

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