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Monday, April 30, 2007

The Mormons: A Truly American Religion

To continue the spirit of criticizing religions other than orthodox Christianity, I wanted to say a few words about the Mormons.

There's a tendency perhaps to dismiss the Mormons as kooks, perhaps in the same breath as one would the Jehovah's Witnesses (persistent front-door evangelism multiplied by discontinuity with Christian orthodoxy doesn't help with popularity in this country), but I find the histories of both to be fascinating tales of religious faith in the unique American context (although I'll only be talking about the Mormons here).

The main reason why I bring them up is because of the wonderful new PBS documentary on the faith airing this week (and available to view in its entirety at the website), of which the first half aired tonight, focusing on the history of the Mormons from Joseph Smith until today.

In many ways, the story of the Mormon faith is one that is essentially American- given the provisions in the First Amendment to the Constitution that permits (just about) any exercise of religion, this country has experienced an immense diversity of religious development in its short two-century existence- not only the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses, but also the more orthodoxly Christian Disciples of Christ, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, as well as some more unorthodox groups that were spawned in England but flourished in America, such as the Quakers and the Shakers.

Aside from the humorous (but pointedly accurate) synopsis of the founding of Mormonism that was provided by South Park, the fact remains that Joseph Smith was a man serious enough about his religious convictions that he was able to convince thousands of people to the truth of his beliefs (which resulted in vicious persecution from orthodox Christian Americans), organized churches in New York state, moved the church several times, from New York to Ohio, from Ohio to Missouri, and from Missouri to Illinois, where the Mormon city of Nauvoo was his greatest achievement. Consider- even Jesus couldn't boast such an accomplishment for his ministry (few religious founders could).

And yet, ironies abound. Although America's constitutional foundation of free exercise helped give rise to Mormonism (among other new Christian variations), this was not a universal value, and it was the fundamental differences between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity that ultimately led to Smith's death and the westward flight of the Mormons to Salt Lake City. But after having found their sanctuary, religious paranoia and a history of persecution led to the horrific Mountain Meadows Massacre. It seems that just like any other system of supernatural belief, when Mormonism was given the opportunity to enforce a theocracy, it did so with relish.

Even to the point of murder.

But that's not unique to Mormons in the slightest, and if anything, it serves to make them even more similar to other mainstream religions. And like other religions, Mormonism seems to satisfy just about any basic quality-of-life criticism that other theists tend to lodge against atheism. Mormons are generally happy, satisfied with their place and purpose in the world, have a set of moral prescriptions, and enjoy a close relationship with their families and other Mormons.

Which is, I think, what I find so interesting about the Mormon experience in this country- it's origin was so recent and relatively well documented, and its tenets are considered so obviously ridiculous, even to orthodox Christians, and yet it has such amazing persuasive power. That the origins of other religions lie so far back in the mists of history serves to make their founding events particularly mysterious, which strangely enough seems more conducive to credulity. And yet despite making demonstrably false claims, the Mormon religion is robust and growing.

I should think that such a situation would tend to give anyone pause about the nature of supernatural belief.

Brent Rasmussen: Not An "Atheist Blogger"

Brent Rasmussen gets it- while commenting on the recent rumor that Karl Rove is an atheist, he attacks the idea of an "atheist movement," an idea which has also received little support on this blog:

I think what is happening in the "atheist blogosphere" is that we are loosely tying together a collection of nominally "atheist blogs" (which really makes no sense at all), and giving the rest of the world the false impression that we are all a monolithic political/religious group with a single set of core values and a defined group identity.

We don't. Karl Rove fucking proves it.

We need to STOP identifying ourselves as "atheist bloggers". That's a stupid way to identify a blog. I am an atheist who happens to blog. My reasons are my reasons. I do not agree with all of the other atheists out there who also happen to blog - and it frustrates the heck out of me when I am called to task for something some other wackjob said - just because they also identified themselves as an "atheist blogger".

I'm just sick to death of it.

This doesn't mean that I am not an atheist - I am. What it means is that I am going to stop trying to fit myself into what the rest of the world considers an atheist to be.

I agree with Brent- if there is any take-home message from the "rise" of atheism in the blogosphere, it's that people from all walks of life, with vastly different cultural, social, and political views, can all find cause to reject god-belief. We're not all Snidely Whiplashes; we're not even a group that's cut from the same cloth. Our (usually) harmonious criticism of theism has resulted in most believers lumping us all together conceptually as the 'barbarians at the gates,' perhaps because it's thought that a focused defense is easier given a united adversary.

In this sense, I feel sympathetic for the many Christian apologists out there- as I might for a tower full of Romans besieged concurrently by Franks, Goths, Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, and Anglo-Saxons. The modern Christian apologist has to be an expert of theology, philosophy, many branches of science, particularly evolutionary theory, astronomy, and geology, ethical theory, ancient and modern history, archaeology, and the law. And to accomplish all these tasks, he or she has only one official textbook- the Bible.

Those who lack a god-belief, on the other hand, are as diverse and disparate a group of people as could be imagined, and I for one am happy to promote this diversity because it affords us the greatest advantage in accomplishing the one objective most of us would agree to- lessening the influence of theism in the world.

Atheist Documentary To Be Shown On PBS

According to the website for the documentary, A Brief History of Nonbelief, a work by Jonathan Miller done a few years ago for the BBC, will be broadcast on American television. From the press release:
BELIEF VS. DISBELIEF DEBATE BROADENS WITH TV DOCUMENTARY
Jonathan Miller Reveals the Hidden Story of Atheism
Three-Part Series Premiers May 4 on Public Television

"… the history of the growing conviction that God doesn't exist." — Jonathan Miller

This spring the debate over belief-disbelief-atheism intensifies with the national airing of A Brief History of Disbelief on public television stations, premiering May 4. Hosted by Jonathan Miller, the three-part series comes in the midst of the upcoming release of two provocative books on atheism: Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Joan Konner’s The Atheist’s Bible.

God has rarely been such a contentious issue. Best-selling books The God Delusion, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation and Breaking the Spell have forcefully challenged the sacred cows, doctrines and dogmas of conventional religious belief.

A Brief History of Disbelief is a deeply intelligent and rational journey through the highly divisive topic. A Brief History of Disbelief premiers in the U.S. on most public television stations on Friday, May 4, 2007 (check local listings). The series is presented by the Independent Production Fund, executive director Alvin Perlmutter.

Written and narrated by acclaimed British intellectual Jonathan Miller — author, lecturer, TV producer/host, director of theater, opera and film, and neurologist — A Brief History of Disbelief originally aired on the BBC in the U.K. It was the first-ever historical look at the controversial topic on television. It is only during the last few years in the U.S. that atheism can be fully and widely discussed. Many leaders and celebrities are “coming out of the closet.” Just this week, U.S. Congressman Pete Stark publicly declared that he does not believe in a supreme being.

"This series is about the disappearance of something: religious faith," Miller says in the opening. "It's the story of what is often referred to as 'atheism,' the history of the growing conviction that God doesn't exist."

A Brief History of Disbelief combines an exploration of the origins of Miller’s own lack of belief with historical perspective and interviews with leading authorities, including biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, recently deceased playwright Arthur Miller, and physicist Steven Weinberg.

"In making this series I have inevitably discovered that the history of faith and doubt is a great deal more complicated that it might seem," Jonathan Miller declares. Among the program’s surprising revelations is that philosophy, not science as often assumed, played a larger role in the gradual erosion of belief. And contrary to what many Christian fundamentalists today consider America’s founding principles, the first presidents were actually skeptical of religion. A Brief History of Disbelief traces the history of the first “unbelievers” in ancient Greece through the role of disbelief in America’s founding to its flourishing today.

Part I: Shadows of Doubt
Miller visits the site of the absent Twin Towers to consider the religious implications of 9/11 and meets Arthur Miller and the philosopher Colin McGinn. He searches for evidence of the first "unbelievers" in ancient Greece and examines some of the modern theories around why people have always tended to believe in mythology and magic.

Part II: Noughts and Crosses
With the domination of Christianity from 500 AD, Miller wonders how disbelief began to re-emerge in the 15th and 16th centuries. He discovers that division within the Church played a more powerful role than the scientific discoveries of the period. He also visits Paris, the home of the 18th century atheist Baron D'Holbach, and shows how politically dangerous it was to undermine the religious faith of the masses.

The Final Hour
The history of disbelief continues with the ideas of self-taught philosopher Thomas Paine, the revolutionary studies of geology, and the evolutionary theories of Darwin. Miller looks at the Freudian view that religion is a "thought disorder." He also examines his motivation behind making the series touching on the issues of death and the religious fanaticism of the 21st century.

A Brief History of Disbelief is presented by the Independent Production Fund, which has produced highly acclaimed information programming for over thirty years. The company and its producers have used television to educate, engage and challenge viewers to consider issues, ideas and public figures from new perspectives.

Major funding for A Brief History of Disbelief is provided by The Center for Inquiry, with additional funding from American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, Institute for Humanist Studies, and HKH Foundation.

Media Advisory: Writer and narrator Jonathan Miller and some of the program’s experts are available for interviews.
Contacts: Baran Communications
Josh Baran – 212-779-2666, jcbaran@aol.com
Scott Tillitt – 917-449-6356, scott@antidotecollective.org
Website: www.abriefhistoryofdisbelief.org
This sounds interesting. I wonder how long until Dawkins' own Root of all Evil? documentary crosses the pond.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ten Things I Hate About the Commandments

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Good For The Gander

One criticism that I've heard frequently from Christians, still stinging from having one of their favorite arguments deflated, is that the "new atheism" is unfairly targeting Christianity only, and giving a free pass to other religions, specifically Islam, which most Christians will readily (and un-self-conciously) attack as a religion based on out-of-date and false human teachings.

Ray Comfort, in the recent press release announcing his upcoming debate against the Rational Response Squad, repeats this:
But there is something more sinister here than a few people not believing in God. Why would so many be so bitter against Christianity in particular? Why aren't they making videos that blaspheme Buddha or Mohammed or Ghandi?
Well, I think it's important to take a little time to address this common complaint. The sheer fact of the matter is that most of the activities associated with the "new atheism" have taken place in the United States, where Christianity (especially evangelical Christianity) is in the overwhelming majority among other religions. But that doesn't mean that other religions are free from criticism, and concerned Christians should keep in mind that we're all too happy to point out the foibles of other incoherent systems.

Here at GTA, our official position is that we're opposed to ANY who assert incoherent supernatural claims, and in fact we've been taking it to the Muslims with reasonable frequency, including here, here, here, and here. Or the Scientologists, including here, here, and here. Or even those who might still believe in the Greek pantheon.

But this is just one blog- with little effort, you can find all kinds of non-Christian criticisms in the writings of bloggers P.Z. Myers (here, here, here, and here), Aaron Kinney, Taner Edis, James Still, Lee Randolph, John Loftus, Austin Cline, and Sam Harris.

And it's more than just blogs- the Center for Inquiry sponsored this speech by Salman Rushdie on the subject of Islam, and is affiliated with the author Ibn Warraq, who has written extensively criticizing Islam, and is active in the effort to secularize Islam. In addition, there are more and more websites for freethinking Muslim apostates, who are eager to see in Islam what Christian apostates are eager to see in Christianity.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Rational Responders vs. Way of the Master Confirmed by Brian Sapient

It looks like this is really gonna happen, folks.

LINK

UPDATE: Brian Flemming posted a rumor that Ray Comfort will be using the banana argument, despite his having admitted it to be a joke. I really hope it's false, because I'd hate for this to be that embarrassing for him- at this point, the banana argument and its obvious refutation is known by atheists (and many theists) far and wide to be patently ridiculous.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ray Comfort to "Scientifically Prove" God's Existence

That's right, folks- atheism is soon to be a thing of the past:

MEDIA ADVISORY, April 26 /Christian Newswire/ -- After ABC ran a story in January about hundreds of atheists videotaping themselves blaspheming the Holy Spirit, best-selling author Ray Comfort contacted the network and offered to prove God's existence, absolutely, scientifically, without mentioning the Bible or faith. He and Kirk Cameron (co-hosts of an award-winning Christian TV program) challenged the two originators of the "Blasphemy Challenge" to a debate on the existence of God. According to Comfort, he and Cameron (an ex-atheist) are qualified to debate on the subject. Comfort had not only written a book titled "God Doesn't Believe in Atheists", but had spoken at Yale on the subject of atheism, and been flown by American Atheists, Inc., to their 2001 annual convention to be a platform speaker.

ABC loved the idea, and will host a debate in New York City on May 5, 2007. Moderated by Martin Bashir, the debate will be streamed LIVE on their website and will also be filmed for "Nightline."

Cameron ("Growing Pains" sitcom and Left Behind movies) will speak on what he believes is a major catalyst for atheism: Darwinian evolution. The popular actor stated, "Evolution is unscientific. In reality, it is a blind faith that's preached with religious zeal as the gospel truth. I'm embarrassed to admit that I was once a naïve believer in the theory. The issue of intelligent design is extremely relevant at the moment. Atheism has become very popular in universities--where it's taught that we evolved from animals and that there are no moral absolutes. So we shouldn't be surprised when there are school shootings. Cameron will also reveal what it was that convinced him that God did exist.

"Most people equate atheism with intellectualism," Comfort added, "but it's actually an intellectual embarrassment. I am amazed at how many people think that God's existence is a matter of faith. It's not, and I will prove it at the debate - once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists.

"But," Comfort continued, "there is something more sinister here than a few people not believing in God. Why would so many be so bitter against Christianity in particular? Why aren't they making videos that blaspheme Buddha or Mohammed or Ghandi? We made our own video clip and posted it on www.Hollywoodblasphemy.com to expose why."

Comfort and Cameron co-published The Evidence Bible and they have an online Bible School with more than 8,500 students. Both the Bible and the school train Christians on how to prove the existence of God and how to refute the theory of evolution. According to recent polls 12% of Americans do not have a belief in a Higher Power, up from 8% in 1987 (that group includes agnostics). In Europe the rise of atheism and agnosticism is stunning, where according to a Zukerman study, in Sweden as many as 85% of the population are non-believers, Japan 65%, France 54% and in Britain 44% do not believe in God.

For inquiries, contact Mark@livingwaters.com.

Of course, a couple things are certain- Ray won't be using the Banana Argument (it's since been conceded to Franc, Aaron, and Alleee), and if Kirk tries to argue against evolution like he did on his show, he'll be laughed off the stage.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Darwin vs. Design: Final Thoughts

I've had a little while to digest the experience of seeing the best arguments of the Discovery Institute which advocate for the position of Intelligent Design, and I'd like to offer some final thoughts on the matter.

First and foremost, I don't think that this is a scientific debate. Now, I realize that most of the readers will consider such a statement to be a foregone conclusion- Intelligent Design has long been regarded by the scientific community and most educated people as clearly unscientific. But I really wanted to go to this event with as open a mindset as possible, wondering if perhaps there was something that would be presented in a live event that might have been left out of the relevant DI publications.

There wasn't.

This is a philosophical debate. That conclusion was as clear as day the whole weekend, albeit perhaps clearer for myself to perceive, having perhaps a better conception than the rest of the audience what science sounds like. And I think that by now, I have a pretty good idea what a scientific presentation sounds like- aside from all the papers I read and wrote as a graduate student, I've both attended and given presentations at national and international scientific meetings. My career now is in scientific and medical communication- I literally digest and create scientific presentations on a daily basis.

The weekend's proceedings were couched in scientific language, to be sure. As I've already remarked, Stephen Meyer's explanation of molecular biology was completely accurate, and Michael Behe's explanation of other molecular pathways was also sound (I can't speak with authority on Jay Richards' explanation of astronomy). But there was a key component missing, and one which belied the motivation of the entire event.

Uncertainty.

However science is defined, there is one thing which it must have: uncertainty. Science is driven by the desire to find answers to questions, and not the other way around. The engine of science may be human exploration, but that exploration is futile without a Great Unknown. It's this sense of wonderment at the vast gaps in human knowledge that drives scientists to perform their craft, and it's this same wonderment that makes a good scientific story. Any scientific presentation follows a clear narrative structure:
  1. this is what we know
  2. this is what we don't know
  3. this is what we tried to find out
  4. this is the new information we got
But this is not what the Discovery Institute presented. Their narrative structure followed this pattern:
  1. this is what we know
  2. this agrees with what we know
Scientifically, it goes nowhere. Philosophically, it's a different story- this is what you would expect from a philosophical argument: a central thesis, and then a number of arguments which support it. And that's basically what was given- arguments, not evidence.

(I think that before I say anymore I should comment on the issue of "evidence." The DI presenters talked a lot about presenting "evidence for Intelligent Design." This is not technically the case. Evidence is neither "for" nor "against" any particular theory, but instead, any given theory has to incorporate all the available evidence. This is accomplished by interpreting the evidence within the context of a particular theory. During the course of scientific discovery, new evidence often comes to light, and its interpretation is usually immediately seen as compatible with a particular theory. For example, when Tiktaalik was discovered in 2004, it was interpreted most easily in the context of evolutionary theory, and thus could be considered "evidence for evolution," after a manner of speaking. Nothing that was presented by the Discovery Institute was new evidence like Tiktaalik- neither Meyer nor Behe had discovered some new gene or new nucleotide or new protein that directly contradicted evolutionary theory. What they were doing, instead, was pointing to evidences which have already been discovered long in the past, and insisting upon a reinterpretation of them within the context of Intelligent Design. So to say that the DI presented "evidence for Intelligent Design" is inaccurate in my opinion- it would be more proper to say that they presented "new interpretations of the evidence which is consistent with Intelligent Design." A small point, perhaps, but one with a rhetorical advantage which has been used extensively.)

I think that Stephen Meyer is acutely aware of the fact that he's promoting a philosophical, not a scientific argument. When Lee Strobel was "interviewing" Meyer on the first night of the conference, he brought up the "ID is not science" criticism, and Meyer took quite the exception. Critics of Intelligent Design try to "define it out of existence," he said, making it seem as if scientists were so impotently incensed by the idea of ID that they would play semantic games just to preclude Meyer & Co. from having their time on stage. This is, of course, a reference to the methodological naturalism that science uses to prevent graduate students from claiming that a tiny invisible gremlin lives in the spectrophotometer and makes all the absorbance values randomly higher or lower than they should be. But I don't think it's a fair complaint of Meyer's- after all, why does the Intelligent Designer have to be supernatural? It doesn't, of course, and avoiding Richard Dawkins' obvious next question (who designed the Designer?), the design of all life on this earth by a natural designer is clearly a logical possibility, and one that science should be able to detect if true.

Which is probably why Richards was there. It seemed strange enough for a conference on the scientific merits of evolutionary theory to have been sponsored by a religious legal club, but it seemed far stranger for such a conference to include someone whose arguments are based on astronomy. Again, I can't think of a single scientific conference I've attended or even heard of where an astronomer (not that Richards is an astronomer, mind you, but that was his topic) was asked to speak on the subject of evolutionary biology. The only sensible reason why Richards spoke was to seal the primary contention of the Discovery Institute: not only was there an Intelligent Designer, but this Designer was supernatural. For if, as the argument goes, the Designer also designed the Universe (as Richards' Fine-Tuning Argument attempts to prove), then the Designer would have to be, by definition, supernatural.

And thus we arrive back again at the central thesis of the Discovery Institute: that there exists a supernatural Designer. Again, it's a philosophical, not a scientific position- there's even a handy philosophical name for this thesis: the teleological argument. It's always been the weakest argument for the existence of God, but it is admittedly one of the most popular and persuasive, and is usually the one most cited by theists when asked for reasons why they believe in a deity (as Bill O'Reilly did when he recently interviewed Richard Dawkins). At any rate, the Discovery Institute fellows think it to be a wonderful argument with a long and glorious history throughout the development of philosophy, and was unfortunately derailed by the Materialism (a dirty word to the DI crowd) of the 19th century and the "Darwinism" which arose within it.

(As another aside, I did want to mention that I think I understand more fully why the Intelligent Design advocates insist on using "Darwinism" when criticizing evolutionary theory. On the one hand, painting the theory as the singular creation of a lone person, while ignoring the continued discovery of confirmatory evidence and scientific development that has occurred since Darwin is an obvious rhetorical strategy. On the other hand, I think it's clear that Meyer and Behe aren't really opposed to evolution per se- just the idea that evolutionary theory is completely naturalistic. Behe and Meyer's arguments, for example, do nothing to contradict the idea that humans and chimpanzees are descended from a common ancestor- nor do they claim to. In fact, both Behe and Meyer seemed to grant everything in modern evolutionary theory up to the point of abiogenesis, which is arguably evolution in toto. And this, of course, has the ironic consequence of making Behe's position indistinguishably close to that of Kenneth Miller's, the evolutionary biologist [and practicing Catholic] who argued against Behe in the 2005 Dover trial, and yet also accepts an ultimate theistic origin of life, the Universe, and everything. What Meyer & Co. mean when they use the word, "Darwinism," is really a stand-in term for Materialism, which is incorrect, but at least makes their use of the term more understandable.)

Thus, people like Meyer view Intelligent Design as a return to the philosophical tradition of Plato to Paley, a rescue of society from the side-track begun by Darwin which, rather than guiding human discovery closer to reality, removed God from the Hypothesis. And it is truly this removal of God which so irks the Discovery Institute- as Meyer said, the interpretation of evidence which results in the acceptance of either evolutionary theory or Intelligent Design obviously has "theistic implications," which he just so happens to believe are important for society as a whole. Given that, the use of the so-called "Wedge Strategy" to infiltrate society with ID as a Trojan Horse of sorts to overthrow Materialism and reinforce those "theistic implications," is, quite understandably, "a good thing."

But good or not, these implications are not scientifically relevant. In a rented hall full of sympathetic Christians, underlining his thesis of supernatural-friendly science with a plea for a return for morality might go over like a bucket of cream in a room full of cats...

...but it doesn't go over as science.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Slack of Zach


It's the ultimate honor- at 43 minutes into the latest Hour of Slack, you can hear me talking about some very interesting things.

Terminator Meets Jesus

Would it be good or bad to go back in time and save Jesus' life?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Darwin vs. Design: Questions and Answers

After Michael Behe's talk, Lee Strobel came back out along with Jay Richards and Stephen Meyer, and all four men took their place on the stage one more time to answer questions from the audience. I had grabbed about a dozen question forms from one of the volunteers on my way back from lunch, because I really wanted one of my questions answered, and I suspected that there wouldn't be very much time near the end. I had come up with the following questions, one for each of the four:

Question for Stephen Meyer:

In an article you wrote for the Discovery Institute website in February 2004, you claimed that the “thirty or so proteins in the flagellar motor are unique to it and are not found in any other living system.” However, in an article published in Nature Reviews Microbiology in October 2006, protein sequence homologies are demonstrated for more than half of the flagellar proteins, and only 5% of the proteins essential for flagellar function are actually unique. Would you now agree that the “uniqueness” of bacterial flagellar proteins should no longer be considered evidence in favor of irreducible complexity?

Question for Michael Behe:

In your book, “Darwin’s Black Box,” in reference to the blood-clotting cascade pathway, you state that “none of the cascade proteins are used for anything other than the formation of a blood clot.” However, in a paper published in Nature Medicine in June 2006, the clotting protein thrombin was also shown to activate the complement protein C5, establishing a role for it in the immune system. Would you now agree that the functional exclusivity of blood clotting cascade proteins should no longer be considered as evidence in favor of irreducible complexity?

Question for Lee Strobel:

In an interview by Deborah Caldwell for Beliefnet, you said that “if evolutionary theory is true… there is no evidence for God… there is no absolute foundation for right and wrong… there is no ultimate meaning to life.” However, the consequences of evolutionary theory do not determine its validity. Furthermore, there are many people who find meaning and have a sense of morality despite accepting the evolutionary theory as true, including a number of Christians, such as Ken Miller, the author of “Finding Darwin’s God,” and Francis Collins, author of “The Language of God.” Do you believe that it is possible for people to make moral choices and/or maintain a belief in God if they accept evolutionary theory as science?

Question for Jay Richards:

In your book, “The Priveleged Planet,” you estimate the number of stars in the Universe to be ten thousand billion billion, and the odds of a planet being habitable at about one in one million billion. If the chance that any given star had a planet was one in one million, there would be ten million billion planets in the Universe, and thus ten habitable planets by your own estimate. However, as of December 2002, an article published in The Astrophysical Journal has documented the 100th discovery of an extrasolar planet, within the context of a search which has found, on average, planetary systems for every one in ten stars. This would significantly increase the number of habitable planets from the initial estimate of ten, to one billion. In the light of this evidence, would you agree that the habitability of the Earth is not so remarkable, given chance alone?

I figured that these would be fairly long to handle, so I came up with some shorter ones:
If the DNA in our genomes is information, than does a person with Down’s Syndrome (trisomy 21) contain more information in their genome than a normal person?

Does the theory of Irreducible Complexity necessarily imply that humans and chimpanzees do not share a common ancestor?

Why were the compelling evidences provided by Intelligent Design so unpersuasive at the 2005 Dover trial?

What evidence is there to suggest that a fine-tuned Universe is more likely the result of an Intelligent Designer than the existence of multiple Universes?
I also wrote several more on the spot that I didn't have time to record. Fortunately, two of my questions were posed to the panel, but unfortunately, both were questions that I had written for Jay Richards, whose arguments were based partially on the field of astronomy, which is not my area of expertise. The questions (and my paraphrase of their answers) were as follows:

Q1) How is Intelligent Design falisfiable?

A1) Intelligent Design is a historical science, so it doesn't need to be falsifiable. However, there are some possible ways to show it to be false. The evidence of the flagellar protein complex being related to the Type III secretory system might have been a falsification of Intelligent Design, but Stephen Meyer and Scott Minnich have a paper coming out soon that will show that the Type III secretory system is a degraded form of the flagellar protein complex. Other ways to disprove Intelligent Design are to find non-carbon-based life, or to find life on some non-Earth-like planet.

Q2) My first question to Jay.

A2) Jay didn't understand the arithmetic that was in the question, but volunteered that most of the planets discovered so far are gas giants, which do not support life. Also, the percentage of stars which have planets are only 3% or 4%, not 10%.

Q3) How is Intelligent Design different from a God of the Gaps argument?

A3) The Intelligent Design argument doesn't use this structure, it uses the Multiple Competing Hypothesis structure.

Q4) Why did Behe say that there was no evidence for Intelligent Design in the Dover trial?

A4) Behe didn't say it, what he said was that there were no articles in the scientific literature. However, his book was peer-reviewed, even though Darwin's Origin of the Species wasn't. Anyone claiming that Behe said there was no evidence is misrepresenting him. He also didn't mean to say that astrology was equivalent to Intelligent Design scientifically. He meant that astrology prior to about 1200, when people didn't know what they knew now from the study of astronomy. Prior to modern times, astrology could be considered scientific.

Q5) What about the RNA-world hypothesis of abiogenesis?

A5) The RNA-world hypothesis can't explain the origin of information.

Q6) Another question I had intended for Jay: Why is it not the case that the Universe itself was an uncaused cause, rather than a Designer?

A6) Because we know that all matter had a beginning, and thus it must have had a cause.

Q7) How old is the Earth?

A7) Intelligent Design is not a theory which can explain this.

Q8) How does Intelligent Design explain mutations that cause detrimental effects to organisms?

A8) These mutations follow Darwinian mechanisms, but they are all accomplished by breaking genes, not creating new genes.

Finding Meaning in Atheism

Dinesh D'Souza, in his continuing tirade against atheists in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, has resorted to a final couple of arguments to bolster his position, neither one of which are rational. Initially, he uses an ad hominem against atheists in general, as he says:
If you want to discover what kind of people atheists are, scroll down to my recent posts and read the responses. I am a troll. I am a cretin. I am a moron. I am a nut-job. And so on.
Thus, D'Souza implies that since some atheists have called him names, atheists in general are bad people. That's sloppy enough, but he goes further to claim that:
Of course atheists have feelings and there were undoubtedly atheists among the mourners at Virginia Tech. But the Richard Dawkins philosophy--that we live in a meaningless world where there is no good and no evil--whatever its intellectual merit, seems arid and unconsoling when human beings are really hurting.

One atheist wrote to say that rather than rely on idle promises of fantasies of life after death, what atheists would say is that we need gun control laws and a better health care system. Fair enough, but is this what you tell a crying mother? "Madam, you should feel much better because new gun control laws and mental health reforms are on their way."
In this, D'Souza appeals both to the consequences of atheism, as well as the supposed emotional benefit of theism, to support his claim. Both are fallacious arguments, and should be recognized as such, but they're also just plain wrong.

Theism, including Christian theism, provides the kind of comfort that Santa Claus provides young children. With unquestioning faith, a child can rest assured that its every good deed is being monitored by an old man far away, recorded with due diligence, and will result in the gift of a toy or some other pleasant thing at a prescribed time. This kind of comfort may be satisfying for youngsters, but it is not so for adults, who know the reality of the situation, including all the work that must go into parenting throughout the year, all the toil required at a job to earn money, and the frustrating chore of shopping for presents. Talking about Santa Claus may be an entertaining mythological shorthand to teach children about behavior and rewards, but no sane adult leaves cookies out in earnest, because when the reality is known, literal acceptance of a myth feels hollow.

Similarly, the nature of reality, if it results in atheism, doesn't lose anything in terms of meaning, unless you consider your realization about Santa Claus' nonexistence to be an existential tragedy that precludes you from enjoying Christmas. In fact, distancing oneself from the childlike belief in an old man who watches our deeds, records them, and will reward us for them sometime in the future, really and truly does free us to find meaning in life... the kind of meaning that is consistent with the nature of reality, not the kind of meaning which Christian theism teaches, which is the psychological equivalent of a comfort blanket, which one holds tightly to and waits to be bottle-fed by the Great Cosmological Parent.

The road to this meaning isn't laid out for us, but adults don't need theological nursery rhymes and just-so stories to make sense out of life. Instead, we have the faculties of our intellect and rational observation to arrive at this meaning. Robert Price's recent book is a wonderful example of this process, and I highly recommend it not only to those who have grown up out of the naïve acceptance of their parents' fables, but also to those who are still entranced by stories of talking animals and angry gods, and are convinced that nothing else can satisfy.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Darwin vs. Design: Michael Behe

After Stephen Meyer, we were permitted an hour and a half for lunch. Unlike Knoxville, where Jason Rosenhouse was left with no other option to argue with creationists in line at Subway, the dining options around SMU were much more diverse, including a sushi place just across the street. Even though I didn't get the opportunity to interact with the flawed philosophy of Intelligent Design proponents while I ate, I was finished quickly enough to return to the conference early, and chat with some people there, including one fellow who was really impressed with Stephen Meyer's articulation of the argument from specified complexity. Thinking that he might be able to explain it better than Meyer, I posed to him the questions which had risen immediately to mind while I was listening to him (such as how one could actually measure it), but he seemed at a loss. Whenever he was unable to answer a question, he just referenced Meyer's talk, telling me that Meyer had explained it so well and didn't I remember what Meyer had said? I replied that it was the deficiency of Meyer's presentation that had given rise to my questions, and he admitted that he wasn't sure what to tell me, although he still thought it made sense. Another fellow that sat next to me agreed that Meyer's argument from specified complexity was severely flawed, and although he didn't think the Intelligent Design arguments held much water, he insisted that there was some kind of ultimate Truth in the universe.

Because of his delay at Subway, Jason Rosenhouse didn't make it back to the conference center in time to catch the beginning of Michael Behe's talk. I'll fill in the rest.

Behe was the only one in the room (outside of myself, to my knowledge) with actual academic credentials in the field of biology. I got the sense that this was acutely known by the others sharing the stage with him- Stephen Meyer, in particular, seemed especially protective of Behe and his arguments whenever both were on stage together- almost as if Behe was a tottering older relative who had meant a great deal to him at one time, even though now he just ate animal crackers and talked about how the government stole his liver. Although I say that facetiously, there's some truth to that- what Behe talks about is scientifically nonsensical, and in fact he showed a disclaimer (which I suspect is required by his employer) at the beginning of his talk which states that his opinions are not shared by Lehigh University or any of his colleagues. Behe seemed strangely at peace with this fact- I can't imagine any other academic being quite so "aw, shucks"-y and chucklingly accepting of something like this whenever they gave talks outside their university. For anyone else, this kind of academic embarrassment would be enough to cause significant isolation from their peers, but I guess that Behe's found a new group of friends to play with, and he seems quite happy with the attention.

The main thrust of his talk centered around the concept that proteins, especially enzymes, function as machines. While this is a helpful metaphor for the understanding of many aspects of molecular biology, Behe essentially fell into the same fallacious trap as Meyer did in discussing information- while some things that perform a function are designed to perform that function (Behe brought up the example of Borg nanotechnology from Star Trek), other things can perform a function without having been specifically designed (such as my lightning-strike stump aquarium example). Therefore, it is not valid to assume that anything that appears designed was actually designed.

Interestingly, Behe did the most to actually define what is meant by "design." Design, according to Behe, is the "purposeful arrangement of parts." But this is a serious problem, because how is this purpose to be inferred? Just as with my Mount Rushmore example, for Behe to be able to reliably detect design, he would have to have some way to tell that the pile of rocks that I placed at the bottom of the mountain was designed for some purpose (albeit unknown to him), but he does not. The only thing that he can point to are things which have clear conceptual similarities to human-designed machines, which does nothing to advance the idea of a supernatural designer.

But Behe was insistent that we can infer design whenever we see an appearance of function. And he quoted Richard Dawkins at length talking about how nature is fully of things which have the appearance of design- to press the point that even "Darwinists" concede that biological phenomena can appear designed. This was the primary bulwark in his central argument:
  1. If some biological phenomenon appears designed, then unless another explanation obtains, it was designed.
  2. Molecular structures and pathways appear designed.
  3. Evolution cannot explain this origins of these phenomena.
  4. Therefore, molecular structures and pathways were designed.
That third premise is where his thesis of irreducible complexity comes into play, and that's about where Jason returned, so I'll leave off here.

20 April Video Update

Thanks to some generous atheist supporters, the censored video now has 11 mirrors, including 7 YouTube mirrors. Thank you very much! But I'm always looking for more.

If you have a YouTube account, please download the file at this location and upload it on YouTube.

Virginia Tech: Fighting the Christians

In addition to Aaron, Dawson Bethrick has also written a great article denouncing the Christian propaganda about the Virginia Tech massacre.

It's really too bad that people like Aaron and Dawson aren't on the telly confronting these religious fanatics and giving them a run for their blood money.

Cho and Jesus Sitting in a Tree

Looks like Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui had a thing for Jesus Christ. I have offered my take on Cho's Jesusphilia at Kill The Afterlife.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Censored Video Update

Jeremy Z. has just posted a mirror of my censored video (slightly modified to acknowledge its previous censoring):

If you'd like to post a mirror also, download my video from this link, then upload it on YouTube, and submit it to the atheist groups there. Send a strong message to YouTube that we won't tolerate discrimination against the atheist message just because the truth about god inconveniences a handful of fanatics.
We will not be silenced!

(UPDATE: Right now we have 6 YouTube mirrors, but the URLs will not be revealed in case some fanatic Christian is reading this blog. Keep them coming!)

Darwin vs. Design: Stephen Meyer


Stephen Meyer was the second presenter of the day, following Jay Richards. For anyone familiar with his 2004 review article, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, his talk was a rehash of the same, albeit with some amusing visual aids (snap-lock beads, Scrabble tiles, and the above-shown magnetic letters). Again, Jason Rosenhouse's description and criticism of the talk is applicable here, so I'll try to avoid his points.

Meyer is a likable, charismatic guy who exudes an air of intelligence, without question. It's not hard to see why he's risen to his position within the Discovery Institute (Director of the Center for Science and Culture). Like Richards, Meyer also has his doctoral credentials in philosophy, not science, but in my opinion, he seemed to handle the science of his presentation much better than Richards, although it was obvious to me that both were philosophers outside their element.

As with Richards, Meyer's talk was really a philosophical appeal couched in scientific language, but unlike Richards, Meyer also provided something more than a superficial explanation of science. It's possible that I'm just impressed by the 3-D animated movie that he showed to illustrate the process of mRNA transcription and polypeptide translation, but I have to say that his explanation of the basics of molecular biology was completely accurate. The problem was that his discussion of science moved imperceptibly into a discussion of philosophy, a transition which I doubt most people were able to grasp.

This transition took place whenever Meyer began to talk about information. Following William Dembski's work (Dembski figured as prominently in Meyer's presentation as he did Richards'), Meyer defines it as "specified complexity," which conceptually describes any data which exhibits a pattern distinguished from other patterns by its functional capacity. On it's own, there doesn't seem to be a big problem with this, even though it's fairly ambiguous and difficult (if not impossible) to measure. For example, Meyer used the example of Mount Rushmore as something which is both specified and complex, whereas the pile of rocks at the bottom of the mountain may be complex, but it has not been specified for a purpose. That's all well and good, but let's say that I've come along to visit the monument, and wanted to add my own stirring tribute to our nation's presidents. Let's say that my vision for this tribute happens to look a lot like a random pile of rocks, and that I spend a great deal of time collecting various rocks from the area and arranging them into a grand patriotic pile, the sight of which evokes nothing more than random assembly in the mind of the average passer-by. If that passer-by was Meyer, he's walk right past my arduously-constructed but natural-appearing cairn, and dismiss it as perhaps complex, but not obviously specified for any particular function. To the contrary, however- I have intended a function for that pile, but it is not one that is readily apparent to Meyer, as he is busy looking for something with more obvious human genesis. This failing of the specified complexity model, that it can only "detect" design that strongly parallels human design, makes it scientifically worthless. It's like having an assay which can only detect signal from the positive control.

This is why, I believe, that the analogy is made of DNA to human language. In his 2004 paper, Meyer cites Michael Denton's book, "Evolution: a theory in crisis," to argue that DNA is like a language. This can be a helpful metaphor at times, particularly for those who have a hard time grasping DNA conceptually- I've used it myself in my podcast. But Meyer goes further- just as we understand that the information in a sentence comes from a conscious mind- therefore, the information in DNA had to have come (at least, originally) from a conscious mind. I'll see if I can't simplify his argument here:
  1. If any medium contains specified complex information, then it was designed by a conscious mind.
  2. DNA contains specified complex information.
  3. Therefore, DNA was designed by a conscious mind.
The problem here is, again, the ambiguity of the phrase, "specified complex information." If you recall, what makes something specifically complex is the presence of a functional role to that information. The problem with this definition is that we can conceive of many examples of things that are both complex and have a function, but which are clearly not the product of a conscious mind. For example, let's say that a bolt of lightning strikes a tree, leaving a blasted, hollow stump in its place. This stump fills with water and is soon filled with microorganisms swimming about. The stump is now performing a function (microorganismal habitat), but nobody would argue that it was "designed" to be (unless one made the argument that Zeus or a similar deity threw the original lightning bolt with the well-being of Paramecium or Daphnia in mind).

Therefore, since function can be found with and without conscious intent, there is no reason to assume that the functional outcome of DNA (life as we know it) in any way originated from a conscious mind, even if it is both specified and complex.

Finally, I'd like to mention the end of Meyer's talk- he made several references to the practice of "multiple competing hypotheses." According to Meyer, when trying to make sense of events which occurred in the past, one has to posit several hypotheses and then whittle away at the group until one remains. In his talk, he presents several scientific hypotheses for the origin of life, as well as Intelligent Design. Throughout the second half of this presentation, he attacks each one of the scientific hypotheses he mentioned as insufficient, and then concludes that since Intelligent Design is the only one left standing, it should be accepted.

This would seem to be an obvious appeal to the "God of the Gaps" approach (or the "Designer of the Gaps", as the case may be). Meyer assured us that this was not the case, even though the only "positive evidence" he had submitted in support of Intelligent Design was the argument I summarized above. Unfortunately, an argument is not evidence, and I'm afraid that I'll have to dismiss Meyer's special plead to ignore his God of the Gaps appeal.

D'Souza uses V.T. Tragedy to Assault Atheists

Normally I don't give a rat's ass what Dinesh D'Souza writes about, but this is a rare exception. D'Souza used the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech to attack the character of atheists as well as the atheistic worldview.

Fortunately, PZ Myers of Pharyngula was quick on the draw and wrote an excellent response to D'Souza's lousy piece. I thought it was funny to watch an experienced champion of atheism shred the World Net Daily-esque rantings of a political hack.

I'm not going to dip too deep here into what Dinesh wrote, because PZ's response was more than adequate. However I do recommend that you, the reader, click on the link above to see what PZ had to say about Dinesh's essay.

What I do want to do, however, is reproduce the email that I wrote to Dinesh for your reading pleasure. Yes, that's right, I wrote an email to Dinesh D'Souza. I've seen others email him in the past, and he does often respond! So I think the chances are good that I will get a reply. I really hope I do!

Anyway, finally here is the email that I wrote to Dinesh. Enjoy!

To: dineshjdsouza@aol.com
From: Aaron J Kinney
Sent: Tuesday, April 17, 2007 03:46 PM
Subject: Virginia Tech and Atheists

Dear Mr. Dinesh D'Souza,

Nice article on atheists in relation to the Virginia Tech tragedy. Oh wait, I just found a new link. Oh no, it looks like PZ Myers of Pharyngula read your article too, but he doesn’t like it as much as I did. Take a look at his response:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/04/dinesh_dsouza_is_a_contemptibl.php

Point to PZ!

Remember Dinesh, that when school shootings happen, it isn’t the atheists that say the victims are better off dead, like those Amish folk said after the shooting at the Amish school in 2006. And also, remember that it isn't the atheists who threaten eternal fire and torture in the afterlife to those who don't believe as they do.

Would you, Dinesh, speculate that these VT victims are better off now that they are dead, since according to the faithful, these victims are now in heaven?

Aaron Kinney

Rush Limbaugh: Secularism Caused Massacre

I realize that Rush Limbaugh isn't the most clear thinker today, but he does enjoy one of the biggest soapboxes for his rhetoric. Which is why, even though he may not always broadcast intelligence, his opinions are soaked up by millions of Americans. Which is why I think that we should be prepared for the repetition of some of the following from his radio show:

Maybe there needs to be more religion and prayer at our universities, folks. Maybe there needs to be a sense on college campuses that there's something bigger than the individual. Maybe there's something larger than the professor. Maybe they're not too young to learn that there are many things in life larger than self, and maybe being able to take comfort in a relationship with that which is larger than self ( i.e., God) would have a calming effect on some of these people who go absolutely nuts and lose their sanity. But that's even arguable. But can you imagine the leftists hearing me say this now: More prayer, more religion at our university? "Separation of church and state!" would be the template there. "What are you trying to do? You're trying to force a religion on people!" No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no, no! You don't understand. You can't possibly because you're irreligious.
Now, the larger context of this quote is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek criticism of those who have been citing Virginia's lack of gun control as a fundamental cause of the Virginia Tech massacre (a criticism which I can appreciate), but there is an earnestness to his example. An earnestness which, it would seem, lacks a comprehension of the correlation between religiosity and violence, particularly in this country.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Mirror my video!

My video "Our God is an Awesome God" has been censored by YouTube.

I invite anyone who is on YouTube to say "no" to censorship and mirror my video.

For anyone who'd like to do that, download it from this Rapidshare link:
http://rapidshare.com/files/26574334/Our_God_is_an_Awesome_God.wmv.html

Brief description: This is a video of about 2 and a half minutes, which transposes a part of the song "Our God is an Awesome God" with imagery of some things that make god "awesome," such as deformed babies, natural disasters, the Inquisition and the Holocaust. It has a short text conclusion explaining the purpose of the video.

NOTE: So far 3 people have manifested interest. (not from this blog) I will keep you updated if anyone posts it.

NOTE: If anyone wants an iPod-friendly version of the video, you can get it here.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Darwin vs. Design: Jay Richards


The second day of the conference began bright and early, with some introductory remarks by Sig Swanstrom (a former employee of the private Christian college Seattle Pacific University, ostensibly the current Vice President for External Affairs of the Discovery Institute, although I can't find any official designation on their website, and was referred to as a soon-to-be Texan, which seemed odd) who set the stage for the rest of the day by stating confidently that "Darwin's theory has broken down," and then urging the audience to ask the question, "Where does the evidence lead?" (Implicitly, this is a question framed to convey the spirit of free inquiry, but in reality to support the idea that supernatural explanations are scientifically acceptable conclusions)

Incidentally, the entire conference was filled with references to "Darwinism," with nary a mention of the term, "creationism." This isn't anything new or surprising, but I did find it mildly irritating, as no biology textbook of mine refers to "Darwinism," but rather "evolution" or "evolutionary theory."

After a clip of The Privileged Planet, Jay Richards took the podium. His presentation seemed to be exactly what Jason Rosenhouse has already critiqued, so I'll try to avoid repeating any of it and focus on some of my other observations.

Richards has a doctoral degree in philosophy and theology, not astronomy. Now, I wouldn't hold this against him at all, except for the fact that he was there ostensibly to do nothing but speak authoritatively about astronomy. That is, he spoke as authoritatively as a philosopher could speak about astronomy, which was substantially lacking, from my perspective. I would have much preferred if the talk could have been delivered by Guillermo Gonzalez, his writing partner for "The Privileged Planet" and an assistant professor of astronomy at Iowa State University.

The reason for Richards' presence rather than Gonzalez' may be due to a number of reasons. Richards may be a better public speaker, he may have more free time to travel around, or his superficial understanding of astronomy may be better suited to explaining concepts to a lay audience. But I suspect that the main reason that Richards gave the talk was because he really was the most qualified to give it... because it wasn't a scientific talk at all, but philosophical.

Richards focused on attacking scientific materialism, presenting the Kalam Cosmological Argument for God (couched as an unnamed argument for a Designer), spent most of his time making the Fine Tuning Argument (which is a subset of the Teleological Argument for God). He also spent a great deal of time promoting the "Discovery Argument," which takes this form:
  1. If the Universe was not designed for discovery, then there would not be a correlation between habitability and discovery.
  2. There is a correlation between habitability and discovery.
  3. Therefore, the universe was designed (for discovery).
The major premise seems to be an obvious non sequitur leading into a tautology- discovery isn't possible without the existence of sentient organisms to do the discovering, which would require the existence of habitable locations in the Universe.

William Dembski seemed to be a ghostly presence during the talk- there were several references to "patterns" which seemed obvious to Richards, but continued to escape me, and somehow indicated design. Near the end of his talk, Richards was somewhat more explicit about these "patterns," claiming that they allow us to make a "design inference," which strangely enough is confirmed by a "fishy feeling" that we feel whenever we see something that appears designed. The experience of this "fishy feeling" was the only real evaluative test given for the detection of design- I'm at a loss to explain how this obviously subjective criteria has any scientific merit (nor, indeed, how it is any different from the "burning in the bosom" that Mormons experience when the Holy Spirit comes upon them.)

Request for cases

Does anyone know of any examples, historical or from their own lives, of an explicit atheist who converted back to Christianity?

And I am not talking here about the typical cases of so-called "atheists" who refused to believe because they "hated God," "didn't like organized religion" or somesuch nonsense that Christians trot out in order to try to convince us. I mean actual atheists who did not believe in God at all, and were conscious of that fact.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Darwin vs. Design: Lee Strobel

The Discovery Institute came to town this weekend, with their new traveling conference called "Darwin vs. Design." Although I'm well familiar with the arguments that are defended by its affiliated Fellows, I just couldn't pass up a chance to go hear them give them in person (even if it's not the most scientifically productive of choices). The proceedings this evening were an introduction to the main presentations that will be given tomorrow, and was led by Lee Strobel, the author of "The Case for a Creator." Virtually everything that was said tonight has already been recounted and critiqued by Jason Rosenhouse of Evolutionblog, so I won't repeat them here.

What's made this venue interesting is that it is being co-sponsored by the SMU law school's Christian Legal Society, not a scientific organization. This was acknowledged at the beginning of the talk this evening, and the argument was submitted that Intelligent Design was part of the legal consciousness following the Dover trial, and thus was a pressing legal concern. Not the most persuasive justification, but what the hell.

Incidentally, although this is being hosted by Southern Methodist University, it's in no way a center of fundamentalist Christianity. In fact, the decision to allow the conference to be hosted on campus was criticized by several science faculty, and there were also a number of SMU biology students in attendance, passing out literature critical of the Discovery Institute and holding signs questioning Intelligent Design throughout the talk tonight. A couple of the female students were even featured in the latest Playboy issue, without any complaint from the University. There's even a University-sanctioned New-Age student group. Hell, I'd bet they'd even let an atheist group assemble.

That being said, tonight did have the slight air of a revival. I caught a few "Amens" echoing through the audience when a point was raised about science proving God's existence, and there was an almost thunderous roar of applause when Stephen Meyer claimed that resorting to supernatural explanations is scientifically meritorious. I don't think it's any stretch to say that the crowd, which numbered in the 500-600 range, was particularly friendly (aside from the aforementioned biology students, who were about as tranquil and unassuming as protesters can be).

In fact, it was so friendly that as I was waiting in the auditorium lobby for the conference to start, I struck up a conversation with Todd Norquist, one of the Discovery Institute's employees in the Center for Science and Culture (the department that advocates for Intelligent Design). I asked him how many of these conferences were planned by the Discovery Institute, and he seemed hesitant, telling me that he didn't know if any more of them were going to be possible, since the costs were too high for the Institute to handle. He mentioned something about it costing $70,000, although I don't recall if that was the amount to produce the Dallas event alone, or if that was the current cost for the whole series thus far (the only previous event being in Knoxville). He complained that there had been virtually no money allocated for advertising, the sole contribution being $1000 paid to Scott Wilder for an "interview" of Stephen Meyer a week previously. He then told me (quite openly, also, which I thought was odd) that the financial situation of the Discovery Institute was grim, and that they were "bleeding money" and were "barely able to keep the lights on in Seattle."

I think it was at about this point that he may have realized that he probably shouldn't be advertising this, and so he abruptly asked me if I was a Christian. I shook my head no, and said, "not anymore, but I used to be." He nodded silently, and then quickly found somewhere else to be. But right after he left, I started chatting up another guy who claimed to be skeptical of "macroevolution," so I spend the next half hour or so explaining the molecular evidence.

Lee Strobel, aside from the bad arguments he presaged during his introductory talk, seemed to be a pleasant guy, even if he was spouting nonsense ("DNA is literally a language," for example). After he was finished, Michael Behe, Jay Richards, and Stephen Meyer were brought out for some "interview" questions. Now, I realize that this is essentially a promotional event for the Discovery Institute, but I think that I do have to agree with Jason Rosenhouse's assessment of his interview style- all softball. If this guy was a journalist, there was no indication of it. I do think they deserve some credit for mentioning the controversy surrounding their arrival, although it was likely responsible for their attendance levels. Strobel even read from the literature that was being passed out by SMU's biology students, which cited the Wedge document as a Discovery Institute strategy. Strangely enough, when confronted with it, Stephen Meyer seemed very nonchalant about it and referred to the strategy as "a good thing."

Tomorrow I'll see what the three have in store for me, and hopefully I'll have one of my questions answered.

Christians vs. Christians

Oh I do love it when they fight each other.

Some Mormon Christians and non-Mormon Christians recently got down in the octagon, and the verdict was a bruised shin and a citation for disorderly conduct and fighting.

Check this out: A 64-year-old Christian in an electric wheelchair rammed another Christian and gave them a bruised shin, all in the course of saving a Mormon from eternal damnation:

But Pursifull and his fellow street preachers have ratcheted up the vitriol in the past few years, creating a toxic mix of faith and fury on the sidewalks outside the temple each Easter.


A toxic mix of faith and fury? Does not faith beget fury?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Disney Makes Smart Move, Pisses off Assholes

Score one for Disney! They decided to allow anyone to get a gay wedding at the Magic Kingdom, rather than only gay couples with "marriage licenses."

It was a good business move, and a humane one:

"We believe this change is consistent with Disney's long-standing policy of welcoming every guest in an inclusive environment," Disney Parks and Resorts spokesman Donn Walker said Friday. "We want everyone who comes to celebrate a special occasion at Disney to feel welcome and respected."


Of course, the religious assholes are going to be pissed. They've made their displeasure known in the past:

In 2005, Southern Baptists ended an eight-year boycott of the Walt Disney Co. for violating "moral righteousness and traditional family values."


Last time I checked, immoral activity was happening much more in churches than in the Magic Kingdom. And where will a child be exposed to more "immoral activity," in bible stories or in Disney cartoons?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The God Who Wasn't There

As a special Easter Sunday presentation, the full version of Brian Flemming's documentary, "The God Who Wasn't There," is presented here at GTA. If you don't have it yet, you can find the DVD, with another hour's worth of interviews, as well as commentary tracks from Earl Doherty and Richard Dawkins, right here.

[Edit: Easter is over, but if you haven't seen the movie, go get the DVD.]

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Our God is an Awesome God

Made by myself in order to properly acknowledge the Christians' attempt to take over yet another Pagan holiday.



You can also download an iPod-friendly version right here.

Happy Easter!

Tomorrow is Easter. So, to all those of you who worship the goddess Ostara, Germanic goddess of springtime from whom the name "Easter" and the reason for the season were taken, happy Easter! Have fun collecting the eggs of her rabbit familiar, and eating him in the form of chocolate!

On the other hand, if you worship one of those copycat, hokey gods... stop stealing other people's holidays, you parasites. Get your own fucking holiday.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Empty Tomb

The Empty Tomb is a collection of essays about the resurrection of Christ written by a number of authors and edited by Robert M. Price and Jeffrey Jay Lowder. In it, you'll find a number of really fascinating chapters examining the resurrection from many different angles, in a way that the average faithful Christian would have a hard time comprehending.

Robert Greg Gavin argues that the rigors of modern historical inquiry do not allow for the acceptance of the resurrection as historically validated, and Michael Martin uses Bayes' Theorem to explain why the paucity of valid historical evidence, combined with the incredible nature of the miracle claim render the resurrection as initially improbably, and thus beyond serious consideration. Ted Drange makes an interesting point that not only was the resurrection unnecessary logically, it was also unnecessary theologically. Bob Price argues that the so-called "liturgical" recollection of Jesus' appearances recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 represented a later interpolation, not a early theological relic preserved by Paul. Richard Carrier gives an exhaustive analysis of Paul's conception of the "spiritual body" of Christ, and shows how it is inconsistent with the resurrection accounts in the Gospels. Both Jeff Lowder and Bob Price take turns refuting at length William Lane Craig's arguments in favor of a historical resurrection, particularly Price's rebuttal, which stung so badly my own ears rang. Evan Fales gives a mythological context for the resurrection accounts through an examination of the Jonah motif, and Richard Carrier takes another two fascinating looks at the plausibility of theft (very much so) as well as the equally plausible scenario that the requirements of Jewish law could have caused early Christians to mistakenly think that Jesus had risen. Duncan Derrett makes a good point that one should always follow the money trail, and that in fact the disciples would have stood to gain quite a bit financially if they could have perpetuated the story of the resurrection. Keith Parsons rebuts common criticisms of the idea that early Christians hallucinated their experiences of the risen Jesus, and shows that this is also equally plausible. Michael Martin returns to Bayes' Theorem to point out the faults of Richard Swinburne's use of it in his arguments for the historicity of the resurrection, and Evan Fales gives Alvin Plantinga grief over his epistemological foundation, and shows that Reformed epistemology with its sensus divinitatus is completely at odds with the methods of historical inquiry.

Although Bob Price's scathing indictment of Bill Craig's work is an entertaining read, I most enjoyed Richard Carrier's opus on the spiritual body of Christ, to which I am immensely anticipating further exploration from Carrier in the future. To quote from his thesis:

I believe I have more than adaquately demonstrated that Paul probably believed in a two-body doctrine of resurrection, wherein those who sleep in Christ will be given at the last trumpet entirely new bodies to live in, and not their same old bodies reconstituted...

This view agrees with all Christian literature before the Gospels and fits the sort of evidence they provide. Therefore, it was probably what the original Christians believed. After the death and burial of Jesus, his "disciples" received spiritual "revelations" which they took to be visitations of the newly embodied Christ. In these epiphanies the secret meaning of various passages in the Old Testament were "revealed" to them, which "predicted" and thus confirmed that Jesus was indeed granted the new resurrection body in advance of everyone else, and was exalted about all other beings in the universe. This revelation also told them that the promised resurrection of the righteous would only happen to those who became one with Christ in spirit, in order to share in the same resurrection bestowed upon him. It follows that there was no empty tomb, and no physical encounters with a risen body of Jesus.


If you'd like to read the arguments that he gives to arrive at this conclusion, I'd recommend that you read the book.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Sam Harris Waxes Rick Warren

Newsweek sat down recently with Sam Harris and Rick Warren for a friendly fireside chat about everyone's favorite fictional character, God.

In short, Harris waxed Warren something wicked. The fat burly preacher couldn't hold a candle to Harris. Warren got the last word in, and promptly served his Christianity something special with a horribly ignorant Pascal's Wager appeal. It is truly glorious to see Warren do almost more damage to his own fairytale worldview than Harris did.

But perhaps my favorite part of all is early on in the debate, where Warren proudly displays his ability to see faces in the clouds passing over his head:


RICK WARREN:
I see the fingerprints of God everywhere. I see them in culture. I see them in law. I see them in literature. I see them in nature. I see them in my own life. Trying to understand where God came from is like an ant trying to understand the Internet. Even the most brilliant scientist would agree that we only know a fraction of a percent of the knowledge of the universe.


Yes, Warren. We all see a butterfly when we spill coffee on a piece of paper and fold it in half. But some of us have come to realize that it is merely a coffee stain. We even developed a word to describe this phenomenon: Pareidolia. Hopefully, someday, you will realize this too.

I can only imagine what kind of bozo Rick Warren would come off as if he were in another field of study, like, say... astronomy!

Crossposted at Kill The Afterlife.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Religion against religion

First, two items:


1. This news story: Schools drop Holocaust lessons.
Schools have avoided teaching the Holocaust and the Crusades in history lessons because they are concerned about causing offence to Muslim pupils or challenging "charged" versions of history which children have been taught at home, government research has found.


2. This video.


These two items inspire reflexion, at least to me...

One thing that characterizes liberals (and, to be fair, statists in general) is their total lack of perspective. In their quest towards glorious egalitarianism and fairness, they never dare to quantify or to rank importances, because that would be counter-productive to their utopian goals.

Instead, they decide to favour one side or the other based on whatever is most convenient for their agenda. Religious preference, whatever that preference is, even if it's not in any doctrine or edict, can trump other religious preferences, and even science.

The religion of Christian fundamentalism is trumped by the belief system of militarism. Phelps must not be allowed to intrude on a military ritual because it is more convenient to offend a family of whackjobs than "respected citizens."
The science of history is trumped by the religion of Islam. Islamists refuse to study important historical facts, and therefore we must silence those facts. It is more convenient to offend a few teachers than a large group of religious fanatics.

In enforcing a singular value system on the whole of society, the democratic State makes it so there must be victors and losers, and it makes itself the referee. The result of a world where religions are dominated by other religions, as decided by the ruling class, in the name of fear of reprisal and fear of violence is not freedom, or even egalitarianism, but just plain fear. And in these kinds of games, based on coercion and not truth, science and reason have everything to lose.

The Phelps are immoral, corrupt whackjobs, but they've never killed anyone (although I am sure they wish they could). I wish I could say the same about their enemies. I don't fear the Phelps and their hatred and fear tactics. But I definitely fear the tolerence of hatred and the tolerence of fear tactics.

TGWWT on GTA

Last year, the War on Easter provided the opportunity for a little bit of fun for both myself as well as Aaron, but this year it's pretty quiet, possibly because of the exhausting response to the same group's Blasphemy Challenge.

This year, I thought that maybe I could still do my part in Christian consciousness-raising, but without all the shenanigans. So instead, I'm going to be showing The God Who Wasn't There right here on GTA all day Easter Sunday.

For all Christians, this is the perfect chance to see the movie for free (even though the timing stinks), and for everyone else, if you haven't seen it yet, this is a great opportunity.

Thanks to Brian Flemming for giving permission! Click here to see the movie.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

April 1st

Happy Christianity Day!

The Resurrection Account: Two Millenia of April Fools

Today, in honor of Palm Sunday, I thought I would take another look at the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. As you may be aware, I published my response to Dan Barker's perennial challenge on this subject last year at GTA, but that original version was done using the New American Standard translation of the Gospels, and I wanted to revise my harmonization using the more textually rigorous New Jerusalem translation.

What I found was basically the same thing- the narrative backwardness of John makes his weeping Mary of Magdala completely nonsensical given the context of the Synoptics. In addition, I don't think any translation is going to make sense of the reported emotional state of the women between Mark and Matthew's versions of the story.

This might actually be more interesting not just as a contrast between different translations, but between two different times in my life. I wrote the original harmonization in 2005, although I published it here in 2006. My understanding of the texts was likely a bit more immature than it is now, although you can judge for yourself if there are any qualitative differences between the two.

My original harmonization can be found here. The 2007 revision can be found here.

I would encourage any and all Christians to spend some time this week constructing their own harmonization. It's not easy to do, but I think it's well worth the effort- especially since the historical merit of the narratives together are crucial for the big Easter holiday coming up next week.