Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is belief an ethical act?

I have debated the issue of god-belief for a long time but honestly it was mostly an intellectual exercise for me. I don't think the hoary chestnut of "does God exist" really deserves any debate any more.

The best proof of that is that no one really believes in God. How could you? It's impossible to even conceptualize the idea of God, and you can't believe in what you can't conceptualize. The person who says "I believe in God" believes in some image in his head which he believes is the image of God, but which cannot in any way have any relation to what God is actually supposed to be according to the theologians. They believe in a father in the sky, not an abstract absolute existing in Dimension X.

Alison really hit the nail on the head when she told me the real issue was that people actually believe in the act of belief itself. Indeed, the Christians have been positioning themselves as being part of the "belief-based" side and that they support religion against atheism, instead of their regular exclusivism. Because of this, a most vital debate that should be taking place right now, and which people like Dawkins and Harris are starting, is "is belief an ethical act?" (and by ethical we mean: as a social rule or judgment, group norm, etc, as opposed to personal judgments)

That is the real issue that should concern all of us, atheists and religious alike.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Whether you're celebrating the winter solstice (in the Northern hemisphere), Hannukah, Christmas, Yule, Saturnalia, Festivus, or any other holiday, I hope you have a good one.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Tim Minchin - If You Open Your Mind Too Much...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Reason For The Protest

Translation: "Merry Christmas, you hard-hearted, enslaved idiots!"

Yeah, it's kind of a dick move.

Granted, the Christmas holiday is but one in a long list of holidays that have co-opted the solstice season for a chance to make merry, and was itself rejected as sinful by large swaths of historical Christianity, and is for the most part now wholly secular in our society. But it is one of the few times in the year that Christians can feel like being open about their religious orientation doesn't make them into annoying proselytizers, because, hey, everyone's doing it, too!

And granted, the Freedom From Religion Foundation's plaque was placed in response to a Christian nativity scene being allowed to be placed in the rotunda previously, which is itself a breach, at least in spirit, of the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment. And in fact the Christian who lobbied to place that nativity scene there himself recognized the FFRF's right to have their own installation alongside his.

But it's still a dick move. As a counterexample, see the December newspaper advertisement for the North Texas Church of Freethought:

Translation: "Holy cow, there's an atheist Santa?"

The most offensive phrase is probably "silly superstitions," but then again, everybody's Christmas celebrations include silly superstitions of some kind or another. My Polish family always passes around oplatek (a large, priest-blessed, communion wafer) to bring good luck into the new year. Yeah, it's a silly superstitious act that has nothing to do with whether or not the next year will be a good one, but but the larger message is one of showing affection for one's loved ones- precisely the freethinking (and secular!) message that the NTCOF promotes.

And I could imagine that the average Christian who breezes past this advertisement might be miffed at reading the NTCOF's opinion on "the real reason for the season," but couldn't take umbrage at it's similar snipe against "mindless materialism" nor disagree with the sentiment I already mentioned about sharing our lives with those we love. And that's really how I would prefer it to be taken, because proclaiming the explicit antithesis to orthodox Christianity tends to not be helpful for the average believer.

But then there's this story. Just this past week, a young couple in East Texas, believing their 13-month old daughter to be possessed by demons, proceeded to beat (and bite!?) her to death with a hammer. They can be added to the growing list of people (in Texas!?) who have murdered their children at God's presuming behest. Andrea Yates, Deanna Laney, Dena Scholsser, and now Jessica Carson. The first three women were found to be under psychotic delusions; it remains to be seen what is found regarding the latter. What troubles me is not knowing if their respective psychoses were independent of, or cultivated by, their religious convictions. And if the former, did their religious convictions provide a conventient catalyst to action?

You see, whether or not the FFRF has taken the most diplomatic path with their message, they're not operating simply on the principle of humbug. When they say, "may reason prevail," I think of people like Jessica Carson. When they say, "there are no devils," I think of people like Jessica Carson. And when they say, "religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds," I think of people like Jessica Carson, who hardened her heart to her daughter's cries of pain, and gave her mind over to a dogmatic belief that encouraged her to crush her daughter's skull with a hammer.

Nobody likes a village atheist. But I would happily take that role if it meant that one fewer person would give him or herself over to murder because of a "silly superstition."

Monday, December 01, 2008

"Stanford Challenge" Founder Dead

Some of you may know Kelly Tripplehorn as the founder of the "I53 Network" and more specifically, the "Stanford Challenge." The latter was so-called because to collect a certain amount of prize money (initially $1000, then raised to a symbolic $5300) the successful challenger would have to have their 'solution' to the problem of induction accepted and published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Most people recognized this as a trite regurgitation of presuppositionalist Christian apologetics, and more than a few engaged with Tripplehorn, although his was just one of several absurd challenges offered by cocksure theists like Harun Yahya or Kent Hovind.

Alas, Tripplehorn's challenge is now defunct. According to his obituary, he passed away over Thanksgiving weekend, cutting short educational plans to complete his masters in religion and potential study for a doctorate in Israel. He was only 26, and though no details are given for his manner of death, there is a suggestion to donations to mental health charities, particularly those dealing with bipolar disorder. I can only infer from this that Tripplehorn himself was plagued by this disorder, and I wonder if his death was a result.

As a fellow D/FW resident, I had hoped at some point to interact with Tripplehorn in some capacity. He seemed to be an enthusiastic and friendly individual, if horribly misinformed, and I had thought that we could have at least had a good exchange. Strangely enough, I do feel a bit of a loss at his passing, even though we never met; I felt compelled to make a donation on his behalf to the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation.

I don't know if his religious experiences were in any way connected with any mental illness he may have been struggling with, but I know that this has been the case for others like him. I plan to spend this month reflecting on the theological confrontations in which I've been engaged in the past; while I may at times mock the ridiculousness of theistic superstitious claims, I should not forget that they are taken quite seriously by many people, and that a life lived superstitiously is usually preferable to a life cut short by self-imposed tragedy.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

ID Was Spanked In Fort Worth

This hurts Jesus more than it hurts the Discovery Institute. hard that you can probably still see the palm print.

"The Great Debate," as it was billed, was sponsored by St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas. It featured a four-way roundtable format, with a participant from each quadrant of the atheist/theist and pro-ID/anti-ID axes. I was there along with some fellow members of the North Texas Church of Freethought primarily to see Dr. Lawrence Krauss (atheist/anti-ID) and also, somewhat guiltily, to see Dr. David Berlinski (theist/pro-ID) in action. The field was rounded out by Dr. Denis Alexander (theist/anti-ID) and Dr. Bradley Monton (atheist/pro-ID). The debate was held at the Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium, and I would estimate about 1000 people in attendance.

After a short introduction by St. Andrews' rector, we met Dr. James Tour, an organic chemist at Rice University who was chosen because he was raised as a secular Jew but now embraces Christianity, and considers himself agnostic (or just insufficiently informed) on the subject of evolution. He performed his task admirably, and was as impartial (and time-sensitive) as anyone could have wanted.

But enough about all that: what were the arguments? Reasonably predictable, actually.

Berlinski started by lobbing grand-sounding but skeptically vacuous questions at naturalism. How does science explain science? How does science explain the origin of the Cosmos? How does science explain the origin of life? Et cetera ad nausem. If you've ever seen him on a Discovery Institute DVD, you've already heard the same thing, probably with the same cadence and inflection - the guy is a total performance pro. Importantly, he never made a single argument in favor of intelligent design; merely threw some chewy questions out to the audience, and offered that intelligent design certainly had the right to be considered as a hypothesis.

The strongest voices of the evening were an atheist and a Christian who agreed that intelligent design is neither science nor worthy of scientific consideration.

Krauss countered by going straight for the throat of the intelligent design movement, and spent some time detailing what science is, how the scientific process works (research - hypothesis - experiment - interpretation - peer review - consensus - textbook), and contrasting that with how the intelligent design movement works (just write the damn textbook). He brought up the Wedge Document, and explained that the intelligent design movement is a thinly-veiled (and evolving!) strategy to attack naturalism in society and replace it with Christian theism. Importantly, none of these points were ever contradicted, or even contested by any of the other participants.

This is a reasonable representative clip of the evening - Berlinski lobs eloquent skepticism, and Krauss smacks it to the ground.

From my perspective, the other two participants were just seat-warmers; it really was "The Krauss and Berlinski Show." But Dr. Alexander's presence was probably just as important for the majority of the audience (whom I presume were Christian of some stripe); as a Christian himself who vehemently discounts intelligent design, his opinion was probably the most stinging for any of the Discovery Institute faithful who were present. He argued that using the concept of "design" as an agent-directed process in science was completely inappropriate, and instead advocated an appreciation of the entire natural world (as determined using methdological naturalism) as God's over-arching plan, acheived through secondary causes. Essentially, this is theistic evolution, as championed by Ken Miller and just about the most hateful concept to the Discovery Institute.

I don't quite know what to make of Dr. Monton. He is a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and an atheist. And yet, he seems to be the Discovery Institute's flavor of the month because he's pro-ID. Well... not actually. Just like Berlinski, at no point in the debate did he ever actually argue for intelligent design. In fact, he stated quite plainly that the current arguments used by ID advocates are awful and ineffective, and he was interested in trying to develop better arguments for them to use in the future. Idiotsayswhat??? Turns out the reason he's interested in doing this is because he doesn't like methodological naturalism, and he'd like to see supernatural explanations at least given a place at the table. I really don't see why this would be helpful or interesting, but then again, I'm not a low-level philosopher getting friendly with the Discovery Institute. The less said about Dr. Monton the better, quite frankly- I'm sure he's a nice fellow, but he had about as much relevance to the discussion as an expert in 17th century French poetry.

That's about it in terms of content. Krauss continued to rain the smack down on anything resembling intelligent design arguments, and even (out of deference to fair play) spent some time taking Alexander to task about his Christianity. Even that was poorly defended, as Dr. Alexander hid behind the "historical evidence of the Gospels" or some such warmed over apologetical nonsense, which Krauss easily dispatched. There really wasn't much of debate after the first hour, as Berlinski was all too eager to agree with Krauss at nearly every opportunity, and Alexander didn't have a contrary thing to say about atheism.

There were a few more interesting tidbits, though.

This is Roy Varghese, a very small man in a very big state.

In attendance was Roy Abraham Varghese, the fellow who "turned" Antony Flew from atheist to deist. He's apparently something of a local ID celebrity, operates an "institute" out of the Dallas suburb of Garland (model for Arlen, Texas), and apparently doesn't know how bees fly. I saw him pass near my seat, where he attracted a small group of very excited, old, and white men who buzzed around him like he was the prettiest girl at the dance. Later, while I was talking with Dr. Krauss in the lobby, Varghese sidled up to us with that half-crooked grin of his; while I was handing Dr. Krauss my North Texas Church of Freethought card, I stopped and gave one to Varghese at the same time. "Oh, Roy," I said, looking at him, "Nice to see you here. I'm a big fan of your work too." He took the card and looked down at it... then looked harder. A few seconds later he began to giggle nervously to himself and slowly walked away.

I ran afoul of a few other Christians; the first batch had followed me back up to the lobby to speak with Dr. Krauss, and got a little bit of me instead. One fellow named Craig was adamant that the names attributed to the Gospel writers were historically accurate; what's more, all the Gospels taken together are evidence of the message God is trying to communicate to us which is that God so loved the world, he sent His only begotten son that whosoever believes... As he slipped neatly into an evangelical spiel, I rolled my eyes and told him that yes, I'd read that verse before, and no, it didn't have any effect on me now. Still, he asked if he could pray on my behalf then and there. I didn't have the heart to say no to the guy, so I stood there with a pained expression waiting for him to finish, as if he were an amorous dog with so much leg.

I also bumped into Dr. Ray Bohlin, Fellow of the Discovery Institute and President of Probe Ministries and whom I've blogged about before. I asked casually about how he thought the debate went, and he nearly exploded in anger. He claimed that Dr. Krauss' statements were half-full of lies, especially the accusation that intelligent design advocates wanted to skip the scientific process and go straight to textbooks. "Ray, what then was 'Of Pandas And People?'" I asked. What followed was a comically (in retrospect) bizzare display of frustration, anger, and flopping desperation in front of the auditorium and the small crowd that had gathered around us. 'Pandas' shouldn't matter because it's also okay to direct kids to read the Bible in a public school library, he said. I was a fool for thinking that the evidence points to evolutionary relationships, he said. Yes, he once studied pocket gophers by forming hypotheses, collecting data, and making interpretations, but that has nothing to do with science, he said. It was all very disturbing, and looking back I somewhat regret being pulled into his tantrum; I can only assume that he was so upset at the spanking Dr. Krauss gave intelligent design and the Discovery Institute, that he needed a little release. If so, I hope he got what he needed.

Far be it from me to give financial advice to the Discovery Institute, but perhaps it would be wise to pay off some people who actually stand strong for intelligent design?

But I don't think the Discovery Institute got what it needed. There was a substantial presence on hand of our friends from Seattle, who had two large tables, posters, and banners in the front lobby to advertise the books and DVDs (including Expelled!) they were selling. I can't help but wonder if the DI was footing part of the bill for the event. At the very least, they were paying the way for Berlinski and Monton. On the former count, I wonder how much of their money's worth they're actually getting. A fellow NTCOF member was seated near me, and ventured over to speak with Drs. Krauss and Berlinski during the break (they had wandered off to a corner of the auditorium, and were engaged in a private discussion). Upon drawing close, he heard Krauss ask Berlinski why he wasted his intellect advocating for intelligent design. To which Berlinski replied that he doesn't believe a word of it, but is happy to cash the checks the Discovery Institute writes him. Strangely enough, this would be consistent with Berlinski's odd statement early on in which he admitted that his own ethical orientation was focused on living as contentedly and as selfishly as possible. It was a weird aside at the time; realizing that he could be exercising that ethic by making chumps of the Discovery Institute seems somehow poetically appropriate.

All in all, a great night for science and rationalism, a poor night for anyone who was hoping to see intelligent design championed in Texas.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Shut The Vote Up

Diddy wants you to vote or die, but I want you to watch the full video

"If you don't vote, then ... Shut. Up." That was the sentiment plastered yesterday on Greg Laden's blog, along with a (mildly amusing) celebrity "vote or die" video. The fare at his blog is typically a combination of evolution, general science, and atheism. There's also a distinctive liberal political component, which normally doesn't draw my attention. Given the recent proximity to the election, however, the interest has been nearly 100% political.

That statement bothered me, because I didn't vote today. I didn't plan to vote. Neither of the Presidential candidates (and none of the state or local candidates) represent my values. In fact, I consider the practice of voting itself to be irrational and opposed to my values. So I offered the following comment:

No, I don't believe I will shut up.

The lack of a candidate I would want to vote for doesn't preclude my right to criticize.

Posted by: Zachary Moore | November 3, 2008 2:48 PM

And that was followed by a lot or angry irrationality3:

Zachary: You seem so like so many who have this attitude. Have you looked at your local sample ballot? No,you have not. Have you considered that there are many different races about which you know nothing? Of course not. Have you looked at the various ballot questions and other issues that will change the world you live in, like it or not, that you have an opportunity? No. Why? Because you are an arrogant sob.

Like the man says, shut up.

Posted by: Elizabeth | November 3, 2008 2:55 PM

Zachary, the fact that you can't even find a candidate you find preferable to the others suggests that you're waiting for utopia or otherwise delusional. You can talk all you want, but don't be surprised if no one thinks you have anything to add to the conversation.

Posted by: Stephanie Z | November 3, 2008 2:55 PM

sorry. sob = ... well, I forgot. snob? slob? Oh, no, I remember now! sob = S.O.B.


Posted by: Elizabeth | November 3, 2008 3:00 PM

I agree with Zachary. There is NO rational or constitutional argument for this oft repeated truism.

And lack of suitable candidates is a damned good reason.

Posted by: jayh | November 3, 2008 4:21 PM

Jayh, this is a social thing, not a constitutional thing. I for one do not want to engage in the conversation with those who do not participate in this basic way, and you can't make me. It is utterly rational for me to make this choice. My intent is social isolation of the misanthrope undeserving of my time or respect.

And Jay, you provide the same clue as Zach that you have not thought this through. There is almost always one or more issues ... not candidates ... that are important, and a blanket statement that no such issues deserve your attention is as idiotic and ignorant as the blanket statement that no electoral race deserves your interest or attention.

You are nothing other than being lazy. There is no other rational explanation for your behavior.

Vote or shut up.

Posted by: Elizabeth | November 3, 2008 4:26 PM

jayh, one can only afford to wait for a "suitable" candidate if there is literally no difference between the choices. When there are differences (and there are always differences), the choice matters. Either you make a choice, you run yourself, or you own up to the fact that you've abdicated your responsibility. There's no fourth choice that doesn't make you a no-account whiner.

Posted by: Stephanie Z | November 3, 2008 4:30 PM


Another misanthrope you may want to socially isolate yourself from.

I have familiarized myself with my local ballot... about the only thing I might consider voting for is a measure to allow beer sales in my city, but then again, the liquor store in the next town is only five minutes away.

Laziness has nothing to do with my reticence to vote, and I can only assume that your ignorant ad hominem is a mark of your own irrationality on this issue. As it happens, even if there was a candidate with which I fully agreed, I consider voting itself to be a morally questionable process. The majority opinion is not necessarily the right opinion (cf. slavery, homosexuality, atheism), and I cannot in good conscience willingly participate in a system that perpetuates such gross immorality.

Posted by: Zachary Moore | November 3, 2008 5:42 PM

Zachary, let me be perfectly clear about this. I despise you and your whiny, apathetic, pretentious, grossly entitled ilk. You are the sort of vaporish, dithering, useless creature for whom fainting couches were conceived. Your opinion on governance carries all the weight of the feathers you keep in the place of your brain.


Posted by: Stephanie Z | November 3, 2008 6:54 PM


If I am to take your well-reasoned, temperate response as an example of the caliber of people who adhere to the "vote or die" sentiment, is it any wonder why I consider following your example to be ethically abhorrent?

Posted by: Zachary Moore | November 3, 2008 7:10 PM

As a middle aged boring baby-boomer, married over 30 years, with 3 grown children, this brought tears to may eyes.
The first time I voted was for Jimmy Carter. I took my 20 year-old son down to City Hall last Firday to get him registered and then to vote (early). I don't know who he voted for and I don't care. I also don't care if you have to pick the 'least worst' guy to vote for, and I don't care if you vote for some impossible 3rd party candidate, just vote. I had relatives who died in WWII and Korea, and friends who died in Viet Nam, Iraq and Iran. Whatever I (or you)think of these wars is beside the point: If you want to have any say in whether you or your friends have to put your lives on the line, the first and best way to get a seat at the table is to VOTE!

Posted by: Tom Coward | November 3, 2008 7:39 PM


Apparently you do.


If petty appeals to emotion are "beside the point," why bring them up? I do not agree that combining apathy and democracy is any sort of virtue. I would no sooner submit to the will of the majority opinion for my own life than I would presume to dictate the lives of anyone espousing a minority view. It is a tainted seat one gets when one participates in an immoral system; I simply choose to avoid that ethical compromise.

Posted by: Zachary Moore | November 3, 2008 9:42 PM

As usual, it falls to Penn to rescue us from this orgiastic festival of democratic self-indulgence.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Hitchens On Sarah's War

Chris Hitchens is pretty bloody scary. Also, that mud mask looks hideous.

Christopher Hitchens is not someone that I'd want to have gazing dourly in my direction. In his latest article for Slate, he takes the Republicans behind the proverbial woodshed:
This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just "people of faith" but theocratic bullies.
And then he goes on to detail how Palin's egregiously ignorant remark about fruit fly research (in Paris!) belies an abhorrent anti-science mentality that everyone should be disgusted is within reach of America's highest office.

I don't know how Palin's fortunes will fall come Tuesday, but I predict that her political future will continue to be (at some level) a national travesty.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

When Apologists Go Boom

Your logic is impeccable, Captain. He is in grave danger.

I’m really starting to feel sorry for Paul Manata at this point; like the Rain Man, he has a single-minded fixation on revisiting the contrary paths his assertions have trodden. "Fetus is human. Definitely, definitely. Yeah. I'm an excellent apologist." Oh, but I should stop. Paul's not comfortable with humor, at least not at his expense. He'd like me to lighten up on the jokes, but he's all too quick to compare me with a stupid Star Trek robot. It's mildly clever, but I would have thought that a better comparison would be the robotic probe Nomad from "The Changeling," which was caught by Kirk in a logical contradiction and self-destructs; I can only guess that Paul in moments of perverse pleasure fantasizes about me experiencing a similar conclusion. Still, since the analogy was left unused, perhaps I can give it employ.

I must say I'm a bit surprised at Paul's lamentations about my light-heartedness, particularly because he has previously complained that "[he] just wish[ed] atheists had as good a sense of humor as Christians. Atheism is so boring and drab. Yawn." Hey, Paul, I'm just trying to "goose the antithesis" a bit here, but if you can't handle the sauce, I'll move on to the serious stuff.

First off, let's stop all this sillyness with Paul rewriting my arguments. I don't know whether he really thinks that he's doing me a favor by doing so, or whether he's actually devious enough to think that he can get away with tinkering with my arguments before he knocks them down. Where I come from, that's called a "strawman," but maybe they play by different rules in Grand Rapids. So if I may be indulged to take Paul's words out of my mouth: the conclusion "it is morally acceptable for women to have abortions at any time up to and until the unborn human fetus emerges from the woman's vagina" is not mine. I do so hate to be pedantic, but if Paul can't even get my argument’s conclusion right in the first 500 words of his post, what's the point in following along for the next 2500?

But I like Paul, and I have great hopes for him someday, so I'll try yet again to correct him. IF all human beings are sovereign over their bodies, and IF sovereignty entails the ability to remove anything one wants from one's body, THEN any human being may remove anything one wants from one's body. I do so hope that Paul can confine his further criticisms to these words alone.

Particularly astute readers (and hopefully Paul himself) may note that nowhere in the above argument do I make any mention of a fetus, or whether or not a fetus is equivalent to a human being. It's simply not relevant to my argument.

Now, what gets Paul chuckling hoarsely to himself and rubbing his hands back and forth is his certainty that I've caught myself in a logical contradiction, a la Kirk to Nomad. He thinks that all he needs to do is substitute "fetus" for "human being" in my argument, and suddenly my argument self-contradicts. But let's look at what happens to the conclusion of my actual argument if we play Paul's game: any fetus may remove anything it wants from its body.

I have no problem with the veracity of the statement, and it can stand as readily as my own conclusion above; however, we may wonder how the privilege of personal sovereignty claimed by a fetus overrides the personal sovereignty of the woman in whose uterus the fetus makes its residence. In fact, the very nature of human biology precludes the ability of a fetus (or anyone acting on its behalf) to act on any decision to exercise this ability until after parturation.

What's that, Paul? Oh, sorry. Sounded like steam whistling.

I want to work extra hard now to help Paul understand what I'm saying. Let's analogize from sovereignty over one's body to sovereignty over one's habitat. Paul and his wife just bought a lovely new house- they have sovereignty over it, and can decide who stays in the house, and who does not. Let's imagine that their friend Craig comes to stay with them, and they give him a room, over which he has sovereignty (ability to decide who comes in the room, and who does not). Although in real life, Paul and Craig are great friends, let's say that he and Craig have a falling-out, and Paul wants him to leave. Craig, although enjoying sovereignty over his room, does not have the right to force Paul to allow him to stay in the house against his will. Paul's sovereignty is complete throughout the house, including Craig's room, and therefore Craig must vacate. Whatever challenges and threats Craig may face outside of Paul's house may be something for Paul to consider, but they do not infringe Paul's sovereignty or remove his right to kick Craig out the door.

What's that I hear? - sounds like a tea kettle boiling. I guess that means it's time to take Paul's argument off the burner; it's done.

I should probably wrap this up before the poor guy's head bursts, but there are a few huckleberries that are too sweet to pass up before I go.

Desperate to shore up support for his sloppy reformulation of my arguments, he introduces the so-called "Preservation Principle." That is, "Generally, any living human that is not insane or suffering some other mental disorder would not want to end their life by means of saline solution and, if they could tell us, they would tell us that they do not want their life to end that way."

And yet in Paul’s own Good Book we find the character of Job, who, (presumably not insane) following a long string of torments commissioned by the omnibenevolent Yahweh, asks for just that:
Job 3: Why was I not still-born, or why did I not perish as I left the womb? ... or, put away like an abortive child, I should not have existed, like little ones that never see the light.
It would seem that even a "blameless" "God-fearer" like Job would rather have been snuffed out in the womb (by saline or otherwise) than have to experience profoundly adverse circumstances later in life.

And it should be pointed out that Yahweh is all too eager to put children to death after being born- for no other crime than being a member of the wrong ethnic group and religion. In Numbers 31, in fact, we find a particulary pernicious passage (on which I've commented previously) – Yahweh commands Moses to order the Israelites to kill all the baby boys belonging to the Midianite tribe… and leave their virgin sisters alive to be divided among the population and the priests as part of the “war booty.”
Numbers 31: ...kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man; but spare the lives of the young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves.
We also find blood-curdling exhortations to infanticide – where Yahweh through the Psalmist proclaims that killing tiny unbelieving babies is a blessed enterprise:
Psalm 137: Daughter of Babel, doomed to destruction, a blessing on anyone who treats you as you treated us, a blessing on anyone who seizes your babies and shatters them against a rock!
And while we’re perusing the Christian Scriptures for any information regarding abortion, it might be of interest to point out the passage where it is said that causing a woman to miscarry carries no more penalty than a few shekels:
Exodus 21: If people, while brawling, hurt a pregnant woman and she suffers a miscarriage but no further harm is done, the person responsible will pay compensation as fixed by the woman's master, paying as much as the judges decide.
While this is not abortion per se, nowhere else in the Bible gets closer to illustrating the true value of a fetus in Yahweh's law – a few coins, at most. Certainly not the death penalty, as advocated by good modern-day Christians like Craig Sowder. That horrific fate is quite explicitly spelled out elsewhere in Exodus, and clearly does not refer to anyone causing the termination of a pregnancy. So much for biblically-minded theology.

And I'll note that Triablogue commenter Marshall has pointed out what I've repeatedly argued is the gaping hole in Paul's argument - if we're to take his position seriously at all, he needs to deal with the science of reproduction and development. As Marshall observes:
[Paul is] stating that the personhood argument is irrelevant. I don't see how this is possible, since the claim is that the abortion destroys a human being. The question that is natural[sic] brought up is: is a baby fetus a human being?

Most people would argue that a human sperm is not a human being, nor is a human egg. If they did, they'd have to deal with the concept that ovulation, masturbation, nocturnal emissions, etc. are all murder. I think we can all agree that this is not the case.

Most people would also agree that a baby that comes out of the womb is a human being. It can breathe by itself, speak, think, and perform *most* of the functions that you and I can (enough that we call it human).

This 9 month point is rather arbitrary, as development is a nonstop process until death (the 9 month period happens to be where the fetus is no longer in the womb, but it develops along all the same). The question is, if the beginning--the sperm and the egg--are not a human, and the 9-month baby is, then at what point does this organism become a human being? This question, in the context of the apologist's argument, seems unavoidable.
Indeed. And yet I'll venture a guess that we'll be long in wait before we hear from Paul on this matter. I've asked nicely once already, and Paul turned tail and fled from the science. I suppose that if I had to deal with his level of cognitive dissonance, I might want to get as far away as possible too, just like the crew of the Enterprise when Nomad realizes that it made a logical error at the beginning of the episode. Because if he were to just sit there and take it for much longer, who knows what might happen...

Look out everyone! This huckleberry's about to blow!

Texas Freethought Convention

For the record, the slogan on my T-shirt does NOT say: "Life is short; drink hard." But that's not a half-bad idea.

The first-ever Texas Freethought Convention took place this past Sunday, October 26th, at the Saengerrunde Hall in Austin, Texas. As far as I've been able to determine, this is the first time in modern American history that a convention has been held specifically for the freethinkers and atheists of a single state to come together. There are, of course, many national groups that hold conventions: the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists and Atheist Alliance International are the primary sponsors of these. There was, back in the 19th century, a regular annual meeting of freethinkers in New York State that lasted for six years. However, it does not surprise me in the least that the great state of Texas would lead the way in this respect. There are certainly enough active secular groups here to make the prospect plausible, and the pervasive religiosity throughout the state makes the possibility a necessity.

Congregating in the Texan-German Saengerrunde Hall is oddly appropriate, given the German Freethinkers who settled in this part of the state in the nineteenth century.

I was proud to represent the North Texas Church of Freethought, and there were many other groups in attendance who were active in organizing and promoting the convention, including the Freethinkers Association of Central Texas, American Atheists - Texas, the Atheist Community of Austin, the Corpus Christi Atheists, and the Center for Inquiry - Austin. I was especially happy to meet some of the people with whom I've been corresponding by email for quite some time; there were also plenty of new people that I had opportunities to speak with. I'm hopeful that, if nothing else, this convention has propped open the doors of communication among the secular groups in Texas, and there will be a lot of cross-pollination between us all as a result.

Contrary to popular belief, atheists can apparently have children. We just lack the ability to love them.

The demographics were much more balanced than I thought they would be. Families were the overwhelming majority as far as I could see from my table in the back, and there were more children running around than you could shake a Bible at. The large hall made for a kid-friendly atmosphere, as they tended to dance around whenever the music acts came on stage, or regroup to the back of the hall for coloring or face-painting. I'm glad to see this being established as the rule right off the bat- I'm encouraged to think that future conventions will also have large numbers of atheist and freethinking children, and I hope that the organizers will be able to develop more content specifically for them.

I predict that my "de-baptism" (walking under a hair-dryer) will have precisely the same effect as my actual baptism.

The overall atmosphere of the convention was jovial and social. There were regular speakers on the schedule (including myself) and they captured the assembled crowd's attention throughout the day (substandard PA system notwithstanding), but between presentations, attendees routinely gathered in groups eating barbecue from the restaurant next door, or wandered back to the tables set up by the various participating groups. My own high visit rate had nothing to do with all the free bottles of Shiner and Blue Moon I was handing out (free beer for freethought). There were also some organized light-hearted moments, such as the "de-baptism," facilitated by walking underneath a hair dryer. At first I wasn't going to bother, but then I figured, "what the hell" and went up to join in. It's worthwhile to submit to a few seconds of embarrassment for the sake of demonstrating how silly rituals can be.

Terry McDonald from the Metroplex Atheists proposed the radical idea that we shouldn't avoid making friends with Christians. For shame, Terry.

One of the real highlights of the convention was Terry McDonald's speech. He began by taking Sam Harris to task over his 2007 Atheist Alliance International speech where he called for an end to the use of the term, "atheist." Terry made the point that most of us feel comfortable calling ourselves atheists because that accurately describes us, and that whatever we call ourselves, everyone else is going to refer to us as atheists anyway. He made a comparison to the term "non-smoker." If smoking had never been invented, it would be a ridiculous term, but since there are smokers, the designation "non-smokers" carries semantic weight. So although Sam Harris' post-religious aspiration is still nice to keep in mind, we also have to be mindful of what we're considered by society at large. And Terry also made the point, drawing on his own experiences with people like Derward Richardson, that atheists should not shirk from friendships and communication with Christians and other theists. This drew some strong criticism from Miguel and others of FACT, who felt that seeking egalitarian relationships with Christians and other theists was a tacit approval of their position. More debate followed, and Michael from Corpus Christi Atheists pointed out that a hard-line approach is reasonable when atheists' rights are threatened, but otherwise it's more profitable to reach out to theists, especially moderates. This exchange was electric, and I'd like to see some planned debates at future conventions- if we're going to do it anyway, it might as well be planned.

Anna De Luna, in her performance of "Chicana Atheist," reminded us all of the difficult cultural battles experienced by those who grow up in and reject religious traditions.

It was also a joy to see a performance by Anna De Luna, whose "Chicana Atheist" one-woman show is a celebration of the struggles faced by atheists who must emerge from stifling religious cultures; as an Hispanic, her stories about the slavish acquiescence to Roman Catholicism by her family were poignant, tragic, and instantly empathetic to the audience, who sat entranced during her performance. Even something as seemingly simple as finding friendship or falling in love can all-too-easily be complicated by contradictory views about one's spirituality and religious acceptance.

The capstone of the evening, a combined set with Safely Limitless and Riffsong, included this sing-a-long performance of John Lennon's "Imagine."

The penultimate event of the conference was a performance by some of the assembled musicians including Safely Limitless, Paul Mitchell's Riffsong, and Paul Martin's Aspiring Atheist. As promised, we were able to sing (more or less) along to John Lennon's "Imagine." It was a nice way to close out this history-making event, and only winning the autographed copy of Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" in the final raffle could have made the day better. Which it did.

Note to Self: No matter how late the evening gets, don't throw away your raffle tickets. You might miss out on something really freaking cool.

My final thoughts are: 1) I'm glad this happened, 2) I'm glad that I was able to be a part of it, and 3) I'm especially glad that this is going to continue next year, and for years afterward. I hope that Texas can be a beacon to the other states as freethought and atheism continue to gain cultural ground in our great society.