Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gervais still at it

I don't know that I'd say Ricky Gervais was a closet atheist prior to his recent column in the Wall Street Journal, but since that  piece came out, he's definitely become more vocal about his beliefs or lack thereof.

Here, he's giving his thoughts about the story of Noah.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ignore this post

Just doing a claim check for Technorati.  Nothing to see here.


Britain gives itself a very special Christmas gift

A recent survey indicates that for the first time ever, Britain is more secular than religious. Fifty-one percent of those polled stated that they have no religion at all, a very slim majority (and admittedly one that falls within the margin of error on these things), but one that certainly rebuts naysayers who feel that atheists exist in such small numbers that they are doomed to irrelevance. This is obviously good news to anyone who places rationality and knowledge above faith and ignorance.

Is it possible that while the United States is far behind, we might one day find similar poll numbers here?  Britain, after all, doesn't have the separation of church and state written into its very fabric of government like the US does.

Obviously, we have a long way to go, but this does bring some measure of hope that one day we might live to see a saner, more rational society.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's pretty, I'll give you that.

So the controversial "You know it's a myth" atheism poster's time in front of the Lincoln Tunnel is over, and it's been replaced by a theistic response.

According to the article, one of the sponsors of the new billboard says the reason for it is to, "encourage people to seek God and prove that indeed He is."

Prove he exists? Awesome!  I'd like to see that myself.  

I'm not sure how a bit of zeitgeist typography is going to prove that though.   Is the proof in fine print that isn't visible in the image we see here?

Monday, December 20, 2010

James Randi explains skepticism

I think the first time I saw James Randi was when he was still going by the stage name "The Amazing Randi" and he had a bit part on Happy Days.  He was just a moderately successful stage performer back then.  Since, he's become one of the foremost spokesmen for skepticism.

He does a good job of introducing the idea of skepticism in this entertaining lecture.

Christian hypocrisy as a means of forwarding a political agenda

Here's a good reason why I rail against the ignorance of religion.  You get someone in power who indignantly claims the opposition is working counter to the belief du jour, and the sheep eat it up.  Case in point-- Republicans who complain that working through their winter break "disrespects" Christianity.  Okay, so are they going to make it economically feasible for the working poor to take that time off too?  No...they just think it's wrong for them to work during that time.

Stephen Colbert shred their hypocritical idiocy far better than I can.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Christmas Holy Week
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Call me Reverend Lane (when do I get my tax break?)

I just stopped by the Universal Life Church online and became a legally recognized minister.  It's takes about two minutes.  It's free, but of course if I want an actual certificate showing my new status, I have to pull out my credit card.

I quickly got the following email, too:

Let it be known to all that on Sunday the 19th of December of 2010, in accordance with the Universal Life Church; do hereby ordain you into the Universal Life Church. From this day forward, you are entitled to all of the rights of an ordained minister, with the authority to perform marriages, baptisms, and all other sacerdotal duties of clergy. You are registered as an independent minister of the Universal Life Church; this is a position that carries respect and a burden of responsibility to "do that which is right", to respect others and to comply with all state and local the laws.

The irony is that I probably know as much about religion as some of those that have actually been to seminary.

You're doing it wrong...

Here's Kirk Cameron telling us why he "lost faith" in atheism:

Believe it or not, I agree with him on a few points here.  If you dismiss something out of hand without truly finding anything out about it, you are starting from faulty assumptions.  It sounds like he called himself an atheist at one time because he felt all the cool kids were doing it.  Fair enough.  He's correct in proclaiming that to be a bad reason. Where I take issue is in the fact that he then substitutes nonsensical mythology for any real facts.  He replaced a metaphorical empty hole with one filled with junk.  In other words, you should attempt to learn more about something before you accept or dismiss it, but you have to be discerning about the information you choose to accept as well.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Some beliefs apparently don't stand up to criticism

I find it amusing how many religious apologist blogs out there refuse to permit debate.  I use Firefox for my browsing, and one of my favorite addons is the Stumbleit.  I use it frequently to find random pages to read, and as religion and atheism are two of my areas of interest, I naturally run across a number a sites of both stripes.  What seems to be the norm is that atheist sites and religious sites that deal with more humanistic themes tend to allow fairly unrestricted replies.   Most of the apologist sites, especially those that delve into the most egregious logical fallacies and straw man arguments, tend to have closed replies.

I've posted extremely polite counter points to numerous blogs, only to have a message come up saying that my post "awaits moderation."  That in and of itself is not problematic.  I completely understand wanting to filter out spam and obvious trolling comments.  I've deleted comments myself here that were nonsensical and vaguely threatening.  But all I've done is refute factual errors and non-sequitors, and for some reason my comments almost never actually make it into the public eye.

I LOVE the discussion of ideas.  Part of the reason I started this blog was in the hopes of churning up discussion with those I disagree with.  I can't imagine writing a blog where you didn't want to consider any other opinions but your own.

Unforseen consequences to conscientious neutrality

The only time that maintaining the wall that separates church and state proves difficult for me is when I go over certain works of literature in my senior English class.  So much of what is part of the curriculum, particularly from the years right before the Enlightenment, is heavily mired in religious and metaphysical exploration that an English teacher who wants to do justice to the works simply cannot discuss them without also exploring the motivations for their creation.  Perhaps you can swing John Donne's "Meditation 17" towards a more humanist philosophy, but is that then a sincere exploration?  I don't really think so.  Then we get to works like Paradise Lost and Pilgrim's Progress.  Filtering out the religious overtones on those would be like showing reruns of The Sopranos or Deadwood on the Family Channel by bleeping out the cussing.  You'd lose all meaning, and the bleeps would run together so much that every dog within earshot would start howling.  So I try to focus mainly on the literary merit, and when it comes to the metaphysical content, I simply try to pose questions that I leave up to the students to answer for themselves.

Apparently I do too good a job in masking my own beliefs.  A senior yesterday if I was trying to suggest that Christianity is the one true religion.

Yeah, I got a good chuckle out of that one, too.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Worst grad final ever

I finished my fall class officially with the completion of the final exam yesterday around noon.   They gave us three hours for it, and I assumed that meant I could get done in about two.  It took me a full two hours and fifty minutes, so I really didn't get done with a whole lot of time to spare.  I suppose I should have been braced for that when I saw what it consisted of:  five essay questions and seventy multiple choice, each worth half a point.

Most of the questions were of the type that asked some very, very specific questions that no one outside of Rain Man would have in memory, and they forced you to go back to the book constantly.  They would ask things like "the study done by Gunning specified that ______."  Keep in mind that this four hundred page text has a name index of studies it cites that's seven pages long.  Almost every half-point question sent me scrambling to look up the author.  This test didn't really assess what we learned; it assessed how quickly we could use the index of a book.  The essay questions weren't much better.  All of them were of the "Explain the process of ______" type, again easily answered by simply flipping through the book to the right page and paraphrasing the process described.  I was expecting a tad more practical application questioning here.

The design of some of the questions themselves was also sloppy.  There were numerous questions for which the choices were "A," "B," "both A and B," "neither A nor B."  Interestingly, in the last class I took over the summer on effective assessment techniques, one of the points hammered home in the creation of objective tests was to not use those types of questions.  One would think that a graduate program dealing with education wouldn't be of the "do as I say, not as I do" philosophy.  Maybe I'm naive in that regard, but as I submitted the test, I was thinking that if I had a student teacher who designed a final like this, I'd send him back to the drawing board.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

More Minchin merriment

I'd never heard of Tim Minchin before I stumbled upon(literally stumbled upon) his Christmas tune "White Wine in the Sun" and fell in love with it.  Of course, being semi-OCD as I am, this led me to look up more of his work.  Here's another appropriate goodie:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Yeah, WE'RE the ones ruining Christmas

I wrote about my concerns that the recent atheist billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel might be a tad too aggressive for the season if we're trying to convey the idea that atheists are just like everyone else. That doesn't mean, of course, that some Christians can't wreck the spirit far more effectively.

Take for example the reaction to the Atheist Vuvuzela Marching Band in a Christmas parade down in Texas. An atheist group marched in the annual event with no more of message that to wish everyone a happy holiday season. They sported no banners claiming "God is imaginary." They simply joined in the festivities with their neighbors.

The reaction? Animosity, anger, and contempt. One woman there expressed concern about what she would say to her children about the existence of people who don't believe in god.

Across the Atlantic, a Copenhagen pastor demonstrated the superiority of his understanding of this season of peace, love, and understanding by executing an elf in effigy outside of his church.  His rationale is that the notion of cute little elves helping Santa actually comes from Satan.

Perhaps the Texas mom would feel more comfortable explaining that to her kids.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A superhero reveals his true identity

Comic book superheroes are normally in an odd situation when it comes to supernatural beliefs, at least when compared to the reality of the real world.  They can usually count among their allies and enemies a variety of beings that consider themselves deities or demons.  One of the earliest superheroes is even fairly obviously portrayed as the Judeo-Christian Wrath of God.  Thor, Hercules, Venus...they're all presented as living beings that interact regularly with the world.  Right now, Marvel has an expansive story in which the Japanese god of evil Amatsu Mikaboshi is attempting to destroy the universe.  In a universes like these, it might seem at first blush to be fairly foolish for a character to claim to be an atheist.  Still, a thinking person would still have reservations, doubts, and could still foster a rational sense of disbelief.

This seldom happens, though.  Normally, when a character claims to be an atheist or agnostic, he's being set up to soon or later be shown the error of his ways.

That may be the eventual fate of another hero who has recently admitted his atheistic leanings.  Founding Avenger Hank Pym,  (aka Ant-Man, aka Giant Man, aka Goliath, aka Yellow Jacket, currently know as The Wasp)  recently related his rationale to the latest hero to take up his former title of Ant-Man.  In the miniseries Ant-Man and Wasp, Pym has created a virtual reality world, and he has downloaded the memories and personality of a dead friend into it, creating a cyber-Heaven of sorts where digital "souls" can dwell.  The computer systems containing this heaven are stolen, leading the pair of heroes to go after it and save Pym's friend.  During the second issue this exchange between the pair occurs,

from Ant-Man and Wasp #2 from Marvel Comics
Even in a world where Norse Gods now live openly near a small town in Oklahoma, this line of logic makes perfect sense, though I could go without the overly florid "science is my god" spiel.  I'm sure it's meant metaphorically here, but all it will do is add fuel to the "atheism is just another religion" argument.

Of course, this isn't an outing without a downside.  Pym has been shown for years to be one of the less stable of old school heroes.  He's gone through numerous superhero IDs and is currently using the name of his (presumed) dead wife.   He's had a couple of mental breakdowns, and he even slapped his wife in anger once, making him the repentant poster boy for comic book spousal abuse ever since.  Additionally, there's still one more issue in the mini to go, and it's possible that we're again being set up for the skeptical hero to find that faith is as important as facts, but one can hope.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I agree with the message, but I'm not keen on the delivery

For a couple of weeks now, there's been a bit of a brouhaha regarding a billboard placed outside the Lincoln Tunnel by the American Atheists organization.  The billboard has the traditional Christian Christmas backdrop of a manger and camel riders silhouetted against a night sky while a particularly bright star shines above the building.  The message on the sign reads "You KNOW it's a Myth.  This Season, Celebrate REASON!"  It has naturally caused an uproar amongst the more vocally religious.  While most atheist bloggers are praising the sign and dismissing or flat-out deriding those who disagree, I've got to say I'm not crazy about this one.

Does that make me an accommodationist?   I don't think so.  While I don't go around introducing myself to people as "Rich Lane-atheist," I don't shy away from talking about my thoughts on the matter when the subject comes up.  I don't believe in hiding my beliefs, and I do think that atheists need to stand up and be counted to let people know that we won't accept religion finagling it's way into our public offices or schools.    I love the public outreach ads that have come before on the sides of buses,

 or on other billboards.

I like making the presence of rational, non-religious types known.

I just think the new ad kind of strikes the wrong chord, and I probably have my wife Dolores to thank for it.  She likes to have a big fiesta at Casa Lane every couple of months.  We usually have one in the Spring around my birthday, one midway through the summer, one in the Fall (her birthday) and one in winter during the holiday season.  She has one hard and fast rule during these shindigs--no talk of politics or religion.

Sometimes it's hard.  Sometimes the party coincides with something juicy in the news that I or one of our guests are dying to dig into.  If it looks like the conversation is heading that way, she swoops in and diverts it with her famous Mexican cheese dip, pepperoni balls, or (my favorite) beer.  If I'm the lone offender, it's not as pleasant.  I get diplomatically pulled into the bedroom and get my ass chewed.

Her reason is that these get-togethers are to celebrate friendships, enjoy each others company, and recharge desperately drained personal batteries.  We have quite a diverse group of friends, and these discussions could easily derail the point of the parties.  Even if the individuals involved are enjoying the debate/argument, most of the time the others there do not.  Though I chafe at times at the restrictions, I know she's right. There are just certain times and places you simply have to put controversy aside.

I am not saying that we need to respect the beliefs of Christianity during the winter holiday season.  I sure don't.  When theist groups overreach and encroach on the First Amendment during this time, they still need to be slapped down hard.  But I think that maybe we'd be better served to keep in mind the spirit of the season.  One of the points the American Atheists are trying to make (and one that they are correct in) is that Christians don't own the idea of winter solstice festivities of joy and good will.  When a Christian comes up to me during this time and says "Merry Christmas," I respond with "Happy Holidays," not "There is no god."

In that vein, I do believe the American Atheist could still use the billboard space effectively.   Rather than the "You know it's a myth" message, I think I'd like to see a "Season's Greetings from American Atheists" or "The Atheists of America wish you and your family a safe and happy holiday."  We are then participating in the best part of the season without condoning the aspects we disagree with.  And as carloads of families drive past the sign, and children read the well wishes of a group that many of them have never heard a good word about before in their lives may now begin to realize that atheists are people who love their own families and wish goodwill, peace, and joy for others.

Then, when the season is over and they see this awesome bus ad in Dallas,

It could be that they may possibly consider that message with more of an open mind.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"White Wine In The Sun" by Tim Minchin

I love this song.  Not just because I agree with most of the sentiments, but also because singer donated the proceeds to the Salvation Army in order to help the most people possible.  Buying this song on ITunes gives fifty percent of the proceeds to autism research.

It irritates everyone while putting out sentiment I can get behind. It's a win/win.

I'm buying a copy, and I hope the money I spend goes to someone who needs it, no matter what he believes.

Argument ender? Not so much

The best bar in town is a little microbrewery that has the best porter I've tasted. It's a small, friendly place, and the lack of swill beers (I'm looking at you, Busch and Coors Light) tends to keep the annoying drunks to an minimum. It is, to quote the title of my favorite Hemingway story, "a clean, well-lighted place." My brother, another good friend, and I go down there every few Fridays to knock a few back and discuss the events of the day. I do get nervous sometimes, though. I'm a progressive atheist, my friend is a conservative agnostic, and my brother is a moderate Christian. Pretty much everything we say after the last one of us tells the waitress our order is a potential match to the fuse. It never gets violent, of course, and it only rarely gets angry, but it does get loud quite often. Not "I-wish-they-would-throw-those-guys-out" loud, but definitely a volume level that I'm uncomfortable with even as I participate in it.

We often continue in these things until they start putting chairs on top of tables, but if we haven't burned the topic at hand out by then, my brother and I continue it in my driveway at home for another hour or so (the main reason for him, I think, is it gives him the opportunity to smoke three or four more cigarettes before he heads home himself). For some reason, it doesn’t tend to get as loud here, probably because both of us are more afraid of my wife than any bartender or bouncer, but the debate is no less vigorous. Still, there comes a point where one side or the other will either tire of it or feel that loggerheads have be reached and offer up a “well, at least we can agree on” statement as a token of cease fire.

This generally works, but occasionally one of us will misjudge what the other would consider a contentionless neutral zone. Such was the case when we were arguing over what could be considered evidence for god. After a back-and-forth where he would give what he would consider proof and I in turn would give the reasons why that doesn’t fit the criteria of evidence, he finally sighed and said, “Well, when it comes down to it, if we had proof, we wouldn’t need faith.”

I’m pretty sure at that point I was supposed to nod my head sagely and agree. After all, we’ve had it drilled into us forever that faith is the trump card in all things spiritual. The assumption when this statement is made then, is basically to agree that the practices of scientific inquiry and faith are separate and equal, and both should be valued as ways for interpreting the universe. 

Perhaps I was a bit too lit to recognize the diplomatic aspect of the statement that night because I took it at face face value and said, ”Why do we need faith?”

He looked at me like I’d broken a treaty. We aren’t supposed to question the value of rational inquiry or faith. We’re supposed to accept both as necessary and practical. The problem is that only one of the two stands up to scrutiny. Rational, scientific inquiry has brought us a plethora of benefits as a civilization that are almost beyond mention. Faith has brought us...what?

One of the definitions of faith, and the one that most applies to religion, is “ a firm belief in something for which there is no proof. “ In what other area of our lives do we accept the notion that we don’t need evidence to believe in it?

I got a shot recently to protect me from the flu in the coming flu season. Do we do so because we have “faith” in medicine or because we know that our chance of getting the most current iteration of the virus increase without it? I wash my hands after relieving myself. Why do so except for the reason that we know that not doing so spreads disease? Why do we do our best to keep children from smoking if it isn’t because of the mountainous evidence that smoking does incredible harm?

In almost every other aspect of our lives, we require evidence to make determinations about the way the objective world operates, yet in arena of gods, the world has been brainwashed into thinking that accepting something that has absolutely nothing to back it up is a virtue.

I cannot accept that “faith has its own merits” any more than I can accept “being ignorant has its merits.”

Friday, November 26, 2010

God and miners

I was going to put together a bit of a rant about this, but then I saw the image.  Let a sarcastic comic be worth a thousand words.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christopher Hitchens debates William Dembski

I always appreciate it when ideas can be discussed politely and fairly. I certainly have an opinion as to the winner of the debate (spoiler: Hitchens trounces his opponent with his usual eloquence and panache), but either way, I appreciate the civility of the hosts (though the product endorsements at the beginning for the sponsoring church are a little tedious).  Hitchen's opponent comes across as a bit of a boor, though.

This event was held November 18, 2010 at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thin skins aren't just worn by theists

Jon Stewart has be drubbed by numerous folks on the Left for what they consider the false equivalency of the message in his Rally to Restore Sanity.  Both Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann make the point that the institutionalized lunacy of the Right cannot be compared to the anger and occasional irrationality on the left.  They say that there is no liberal mirror to a Glenn Beck or an Ann Coulter.  As far as that goes, I agree with them, but I don't think that was the message of the Rally.  Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seemed to me that Stewart was simply trying to get everyone on all sides to step back and take a deep breath, then put things into perspective.  The hypersensitivity that is so apparent on Fox News is certainly not confined there, nor is it limited to the conservative frame of mind.

Take as a case in point this conversation I got into today on Facebook.  I was responding to a post by Tracie Harris in which she was simply stating her amusement about how Facebook puts up Christian advertisements on atheists' pages based on our profile information.  One of her other fans responded in an over-the-top way that I've reprinted below along with my responses.  I've removed the other person's name (now #######) , but I otherwise have not edited the comments.  Spelling and grammar are exactly as that person originally wrote.
#######:  i close [the ads] and in my remark i say that is offensive.  we should all get offended when we see a propaganda for bronze age fairy tale worship

Rich Lane I'd call them ridiculous, but I can't find ads like that offensive. We scoff at theists who say the atheist bus ads are offensive, so how can we in good conscience make the same claim?

#######: no. but an organisation which proclaims an ultimate truth which has failed to be justified for over 2000 years, the religion which is the basis for the mass slaughter of jews in ww2, the 500 years of burning men and women to death at the st...ake (the very icon they reject) simply because they refuse to believe, submit, or are intelligent enough to question.

the organisation which proclaim the source of morality but rapes children; who went to Africa, took a look around and despite their poor situation, convinced them to keep having babies non stop and cause a situation whereby they have more population then they can feed, where mothers have to give birth to babies to watch they die of hunger, and entire villages down with aids because condoms are evil...

yes i can get offended. we have the right to. as opposed to them having none. and i stand by my right to not to have to tolerate the world giving bronze age fairy tales respect. i deserve to be offended when the UN make laws for its member states to INCRIMINATE anyone who might speak ill of islam, whether the insulting verse comes from their very own holy scripture or not.
everyone should be offended by religion.
Rich Lane That's doesn't answer my question. How can we pooh-pooh Christians who say the bus ads offend them if we take the same attitude? "Offend" means something very specific to me; it means someone has transgressed an ethical standard or moral boundary. If the ad says something about the sinfulness and hellbound nature of gays, I'd agree that's offensive. If it's just selling the Bible or the latest in Christian jewelry, it's just stupid and tacky to me.
#######: it does.
#######: maybe not to you. but what that is, is propagating their religion. lobbying falls within propagating too. try living in a place where 1st amendment do not apply and religion's lobbying can give birth to UN resolution where u might be jailed... for posting a youtube video that shows a muslim holyman on tv telling men to beat women.

so yes i respect your views. but i have every right to be offended.
every right to. as opposed to them having none.

#######:  and i might add precisely in good conscience and in good mind should we be offended. anyone who isn't must either be a saint or one of their religious order

Rich Lane: Since I am neither saint nor religious, your last statement is obviously false.

#######:  it doesnt apply to you. doesn't make it false.

Rich Lane: But I'm not offended by the ads, so I'm not sure how your blanket statement *doesn't* include me when it includes "...anyone who isn't..."

#######: its an opinion. i can reconcile that by saying its not "everyone" lol

#######: and if you werent being too quick to disagree you might find it is very much me shooting off my own opinion instead of the blanket assertion as you asserted
 I have reason to suspect that English may not be this person's first language, so I'm not going to make a big deal about the grammar and spelling, but I really roll my eyes at the notion of reporting an advertisement as offensive simply because it features Christian products.  1) the complaint will accomplish absolutely nothing, and 2) it perpetuates the notion of atheists as thin-skinned, hyperbolic, and hypocritical.  Then the poster goes on to make a blanket statement how if a person doesn't find the ads offensive, they must be religious.  This to me is nothing but a variation of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy which is so frequently evident in theist apologetics.

I retired from the field after the poster essentially said I was misrepresenting the argument by confusing his opinion with a blanket assertion (the difference being...?) because I always feel like I'm making a scene in someone else's house when I get into a debate on another person's thread on Facebook, but the person continued to post, only now the subject was a mini conspiracy theory on how Youtube was becoming a tool for theists and soon atheists would not be allowed to post there at all, and how he wished another youtube would come into being to ensure atheistic freedom

Personally, I think this is the kind of person Stewart had in mind when he planned the rally.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God"

I get tired of listening to music while on the elliptical runner, so I tend to lean toward listening to audio books more often.  It's a great way to catch up on my non-fiction, and one the best listens I've had in the past year has been Julia Sweeney's monologue recounting her own journey from devout Catholic to reluctant atheist.  If you can find it, I recommend it.  Here's a taste from the absolutely wonderful TED website:

Who do I thank on Thanksgiving?

I thank my parents who taught me to think and value education even when those qualities lead me places I don't know they would agree with.

I thank my brother and sisters for loving me and being there when I need them even though time and miles keep us apart most of the time.

I thank my beautiful, loving wife of nearly twenty-three years who accepts me for who I am and showers me with more unconditional love than any man or woman has a right to expect.

I thank all four of my children for taking the best parts of what they learned from me to heart while being kind and forgiving enough to pretend the rest never happened.

I thank my friends who put up with my eccentricities and (hopefully only occasional) pomposity with a smile.

I thank my students who keep me forever on my guard and challenge me to come up with new and better ways to help them become rational, knowledge-loving citizens of the world.

I thank my dog for pure, unadulterated affection that requires nothing save that it be returned in kind.

I'm thankful to my employers, who even in these trying times are doing their level best to help all the other teachers her and me to prepare our students for the world that will greet them far more quickly than they expect.
A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
-William Shakespeare
I won the cosmic lottery and am grateful for it.  With all that I have been given, I cannot ask for much else, save that I hope for the same for my friends and family, and hope that you are as fortunate to have as many things to be thankful for this season.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Atheist Blogroll

My blog has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Are these the best arguments they can come up with?

Disclosure:  I found 3/4 of a 1.5L bottle of Yellow Tail Merlot in my bar, and I was in the middle of doing my best to recycle the glass bottle when I came across this article which does its best (I'm assuming) to counter atheistic claims.  What follows are my thoughts while thoroughly toasted on the claims made by the article.  The reactions and rebuttals I came up with are from the hour or so after I read it.  Any changes made from my initial reactions are only to clean up spelling, grammar and mechanics. 

I came across this website through the Stumble-upon add-on on FirefoxSomehow, it was listed as an "atheist/agnostic" site even though it is obviously a Christian apologist website.  Meh.  No big deal.  I'll read it anyways.  I'm always interested in apologetics.  This one comes under the banner of The Christian Research Institute.  I've never heard of it before, but the author purports to being a Ph. D. candidate, so perhaps this one will actually do more than give the same tire old arguments that have been refuted ad nauseum for years.

Here's the first refutation the author gives regarding atheism:
First, even if the theist could not muster good arguments for God’s existence, atheism still would not be shown to be true.  The outspoken atheist Kai Nielsen recognizes this: "To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false.... All the proofs of God’s existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists."
Cthulu working on his tan while relaxing at the beach
My reaction:  So?  With very few exceptions, atheists don't claim to know for a fact that gods don't exist.  All they state is that without evidence that he/she/it does exist, there is simply no reason to assume he/she/it does.  If there is no reason to presume he/she/it does exist--we don't.  Why don't Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or Jews assume the Great Cthulhu exists?  Simply because there's no evidence that he does exist doesn't prove he doesn't, right?  For that matter, why don't Hindus accept the existence of Yahweh, the Christians the existence of Shiva, and the Muslims the position of Jesus as the Son of God?  Without evidence to refute those claims, they should be accepted, right?  This argument depends upon atheists claiming to know that no gods exist.  By and large, we don't.  The burden of evidence is still on the theists.
Second, the "presumption of atheism" demonstrates a rigging of the rules of philosophical debate in order to play into the hands of the atheist, who himself makes a truth claim. Alvin Plantinga correctly argues that the atheist does not treat the statements "God exists" and "God does not exist" in the same manner. The atheist assumes that if one has no evidence for God’s existence, then one is obligated to believe that God does not exist — whether or not one has evidence against God’s existence.
My reaction:

You are not "obligated" to believe gods do not exist.  A rational person would ask, however, why one should believe in a god or gods without evidence.  Take gods out of the equation--why would anyone believe in anything that is absolutely lacking in evidence?  You certainly can do so, but doing so couldn't readily be called a rational thing to do.
Third, in the absence of evidence for God’s existence, agnosticism, not atheism, is the logical presumption. Even if arguments for God’s existence do not persuade, atheism should not be presumed because atheism is not neutral; pure agnosticism is. Atheism is justified only if there is sufficient evidence against God’s existence.
 My reaction: This is definitely a misuse of terms, though I can't speak to whether it is an unintentional error or an intentional obfuscation. 
Therefore, a person who claims to have no certain knowledge of the existence of a god is an agnostic.  A person who simply does not believe in gods is an atheist.   I can be agnostic in that I don't claim to be 100 percent certain that there is no god, but because I don't believe in gods due to lack of evidence, I am still an atheist.  Belief and 100 percent certainty are not dependent upon each other.  Similarly, a person who believes in a god but don't claim to be 100 percent certain can still be an agnostic theist.  While there are gnostic atheists (and gnostic theists), most atheists tend to be of the sort that don't claim special knowledge of the lack of godly beings, but still don't believe.  Thus, this point is also moot.
Fourth, to place belief in Santa Claus or mermaids and belief in God on the same level is mistaken. The issue is not that we have no good evidence for these mythical entities; rather, we have strong evidence that they do not exist. Absence of evidence is not at all the same as evidence of absence, which some atheists fail to see.
My reaction:  Really?  Interesting, I notice there is no presentation of what that evidence for the non-existence of Santa Claus is.  Normally, when making a claim of evidence to prove your point, it is customary to actually, y'know, present it. We are left to our own devices to decide what that evidence might be.  It can't be the fact that no one has seen him, or that he defies the laws of physics because one could go in to the same rational contortions theists do to explain their gods and say that he simply exists outside the natural universe and is there somehow exempt from the rules that govern all matter and energy that we know of.  Any refutation of Santa based on physics, logic, and rationality could also be used to refute gods, so we have to steer clear of those.   I would say that the most damning piece of positive, provable evidence against St. Nick is that it is easily provable that parents and family give the gifts that are credited with being given by him.

Okay, if that's what Mr. (soon to be doctor) Copan is referring to as evidence, then what is the response to watching machines devised from modern technology and the diligent efforts of hundreds of volunteers strive to rescue the Chilean miners then being attributed as "a miracle"?  God didn't float those guys out while celestial trumpets blared and the glow from angels turned the site into a perpetual, glorious day.  We didn't even get a Terry Gilliam illustration of god parting the clouds.  All we got were some very dedicated human beings using the tools created using the principles of science to rescue their fellows.  I am open to anyone who can logically explain the differences. can argue that the contingency of the universe — in light of Big Bang cosmology, the expanding universe, and the second law of thermodynamics (which implies that the universe has been "wound up" and will eventually die a heat death) — demonstrates that the cosmos has not always been here. It could not have popped into existence uncaused, out of absolutely nothing, because we know that whatever begins to exist has a cause. A powerful First Cause like the God of theism plausibly answers the question of the universe’s origin.
My reaction:  One could certainly argue that, but one would instantly be rebutted by asking how one determines that "beginning to exist" must have a "cause."  Define "cause" please.  Do you mean "intelligent creator"?  If so, what is the evidence that this is always the case?   Stephen Hawking very recently elucidated on how the universe could have come about without a deity in his book The Grand Design.  To say that it must have happened because of a creator because we don't know of instances when it hasn't is purely an example of the logical fallacy of an argument from ignorance. 
The existence of objective morality provides further evidence for belief in God. If widow-burning or genocide is really wrong and not just cultural, then it is difficult to account for this universally binding morality, with its sense of "oughtness," on strictly naturalistic terms.
My reaction: Either I've been drinking a LOT (always a possibility) or he somehow leaped over evidence that there is an objective morality.  I can literally think of dozens of examples of how biblical morality is not only subjective, but contradicts itself. 

Conclusion:  Okay, here I am, a lowly public school teacher only halfway through a masters program and sporting an exuberant buzz, and the most research I had to do to put this rebuttal together is google some clip art for entertainment purposes.

Seriously, is this an example of the type of best arguments the educated theists can put forth?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The evening's itinerary

Let's see, school let's out at 3:20.  I worked out for an hour then went home.  I had dinner about five o'clock, then graded papers for about and hour and a half.  Then I got online and worked on my grad class assignments for the week, getting about half done.  I take a small stretch (during which I'm writing this entry), then I sit back down to continue planning a big cross-curricular unit for the ninth grade that starts after Thanksgiving break.

And sometime over the next week I've got to begin planning the unit assignment the caps off my grad class and is worth about half the grade.  This has to be done between doing lesson plans for the next week for my regular ninth grade and senior classes, as well as the five cyber classes I'm responsible for.  Oh, yeah...I still have to grade the work from the cyber classes.

Please keep things like this in mind the next time you mention to a teacher how great is must be to be done with work by 3:30 and he looks at you like he's considering ripping your throat out with his teeth.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Atheists don't have no songs

Steve Martin was arguably the first comedian "superstar" who packed concert halls like a rock star.  While he's focused on his movie career in recent decades, this song shows he's still worth about five Dane Cooks.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The theological No-Prize

One of Marvel Comics' greatest strengths when it first started gaining popularity in the mid-sixties was the interconnectedness of its fictional universe, and characters from one book would pop in and out of the pages of another's with unprecedented regularity.  As the backlog of stories grew, however, errors and irregularities began to pop up as it became harder for Stan Lee and the small editorial staff to keep track of minute and relatively inconsequential details of the "lives" of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and their supporting cast.    The fans, the folks Lee called the "True Believers," however, seemed to put these books under the microscope, and they began to point out piddly and major discrepancies.  More, they wouldn't take "it's a work of fiction" as an answer.

The famous envelope that was mailed out to winners
of the No-Prize.
Anybody who's read comics as long as I have doesn't have to be told what the solution Lee came up with was- The Marvel Comics No-Prize.  The No-Prize was a clever little bit of public relations.  Lee told the readers it was up to them to come up with explanations for the discrepancies.   If one of the True Believers spotted an error in Captain America, then it was up to him to explain how it wasn't really an error.  The fans ate it up, and they frequently went into ridiculous contortions of logic to make the stories internally consistent, at least to their own satisfaction.  Marvel even went so far as to mail No-Prize winners an envelope emblazoned with the announcement of their status as a winner.  The gag was that the envelope was empty.

No-Prize...get it?

No-Prizes were so popular that Marvel
eventually put out a one-shot book
highlighting their "best" goofs
and errors.

I even sent a couple of letters to Marvel as a kid in an attempt to get a No-Prize.  It was fun trying to hammer out the silliness of those early comics with even more silliness of my own.  I never won one, but I can assure you that if I had, I would still be in possession of that envelope, and it would likely adorn the wall of my classroom right next to the replica of Captain America's shield. 

As fun as it all was (they stopped giving No-Prizes a number of years ago), I doubt that most fans felt creating an internal consistency for the fictional Marvel Universe made it any more real.  Reading an explanation for why the Hulk always wore purple pants didn't make the Hulk a more realistically viable being.  Making a fictional story internally consistent, even with evidence from within the story, doesn't mean that there is evidence that the story really happened.  Anybody who uses the No-Prizes to make the case that Spider-Man really does swing through the streets of New York City on incredibly strong artificial spider webs would be instantly be consider at best charmingly eccentric and at worst an utter lunatic.

But that's exactly what many religious apologists do.

Much of religious apology focuses on trying to smooth out continuity errors or logical inconsistencies within the confines of the religious texts and dogma it belongs to.  Most of them that I've heard or read require as much bending and twisting of logical thought as explaining away a comic book gaffe, but even those that do smooth over the story internally do nothing to prove that the events in the text actually happened.

The first time I recall reading a Christian apology, I was probably about ten.  The discrepancy at hand was one of the first from the Bible.  The setup: Adam and Eve were the first humans, and they only had two kids, Cain and Able.  Cain killed Abel and was then condemned to wander the Earth until he settled in the Land of Nod.  There he married and had kids.  If there were no other humans before Adam and Eve, then where did Cain's future wife come from?

The particular explanation not only tried to smooth over that Bible pothole but attempted to merge it with the theory of evolution.  Adam, Eve, and their progeny were the first humans with souls.  Those that dwelt in Nod were the offspring of natural selection.  When Cain mated with the monkey people of Nod, he imbued the future mankind with a spiritual essence.  I remember thinking at the time that made a lot of sense.

And it did...from a No-Prize frame of mind.

But it does nothing to prove that the story is true in the slightest.  There is no evidence of any of the people mentioned.  There is no evidence of the existence of the Garden of Eden or the Land of Nod.  There is proof of evolution, but there is no evidence of the existence of the soul.  In short, while I can see how that story can make the story of Genesis more palatable as a work of fiction, it doesn't do a bloody thing to make it more acceptable as historical fact.

Apologetics like this are part and parcel of the arguments I get hit with whenever the subject of religion comes up.  One of the examples I've been hit with several times is the story of the atheist college professor and the Christian student.  There are numerous versions of this story out there, several versions even have the part of the student played by a young Albert Einstein (odd, since Einstein was very outspoken about his non-theistic beliefs).  I've had discussions about this story with several people, including family members, and I've pointed out the fallacies with even the internal logic of the story. But for the sake of argument, let's assume the exemplum is logically consistent internally.  Assume there is no viable argument with the student's explanation as given.

So what?

The argument still requires we take as a given the existence of a god, just like in order to accept that the Hulk always is wearing purple pants, we have to assume as a given that there is a Hulk.  Now, we don't sweat that aspect of the story of the Hulk's pants because we know we're talking about a fictional character, so there's an implicit hypothetical acceptance of his existence.  The ante is raised with the notion of a supposedly real deity, though.  It's not out of bounds to now ask where the proof that such a being exists is.So far there isn't any.

So in that regard, most apologetics seem to be no more sophisticated than comic book fans adding their own non-canon stories to a fictional universe.   They may make the over-arching story more consistent on some levels, but they do nothing to add credence to the acceptability of the story as given fact.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I blame George Carlin

When I was in junior high, my brother and I discovered the joy that was the comedy album.  We spent many hours listening to Bill Cosby's various routines on vinyl LPs we either purchased from Fisher's Big Wheel or borrowed from the local library, and we were must have dulled the needle of the record player listening to "Noah" over and over.  Even the best of his bits grew overly familiar over time, however, and we went searching for other funny guys to entertain us.    So one day I while I was browsing the discounted albums at Big Wheel, I came across one for two bucks that I knew right away I'd have to sneak into the house.

George Carlin's Class Clown.

Back in the day, there was no namby-pamby
"Parental Advisory" label on albums.

The cover itself would have offended my mom.  Carlin sat on a stool, an open denim shirt, his beard and long hair proclaiming him a "hippie" to my parents even though that term was pretty much passe to kids my age by that point in history.  Sneaking it into the house was the equivalent of bringing in a Playboy or Hustler, and the repercussions would likely have been similar.  The damn thing was harder to get in unnoticed too.  You can fold a Playboy.   It stayed in the shed next to our bikes until we were home alone, and then it went directly on the turntable.

I knew the definition of "subversive" by then, but I didn't really understand it until I heard his seven words you can't say on TV, the most famous track from the album.  If you asked me back then, I would have definitely said that was my favorite bit.  To this day, it's the one I can recite almost from memory.  But even more influential to me was "Special Dispensation-Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo" and "Heavy Mysteries." In fact, most of the B side of the album dealt with Carlin's Catholic upbringing.  It was gentler stuff than the seven words.  There was nary a cuss word in any of the bits that I can recall,  These bits were so much more tame than the scathing and blunt pieces he would do in later years.  He gently poked and prodded religious dogma in ways that at the time seemed simply amusing.  Still, they left me thinking things I hadn't ever considered before.

As I've said, we didn't really have any religious instruction growing up, so things like catechism and communion were completely alien to me.   However, ideas like God being all-powerful were a given.  When Carlin talked about asking his priest if God could make a rock so big he himself couldn't move it, I laughed at the idea of an authority figure stammering to answer the unanswerable, but on a deeper level, I really started to consider the implications.  I was introduced to the paradoxes of dogma that I would eventually shove out of my brain for a few years.  They would eventually, inevitably come creeping back and gnaw and fray the threads of blind belief.

Carlin's later stuff was far less subtle, far more hostile to religion than that early album, but even though I enjoyed just about everything he put out.  That first little taste of rationality sticks with me the most.

Thanks, George.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

If you enjoy CSI, then you'll get this evidence for evolution.

This is perhaps the best evidence, the "smoking gun," for evolution that can be easily understood by the layman that I have ever seen.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Getting a seasonal fix

I made my first foray down to the supermarket since before Halloween to get some ingredients for homemade chili.  It's November 6th, not even a full week after binging on horror movies and left over trick-or-treat candy, and you could already hear the Christmas music blaring from the building while still in the parking lot.  Nothing new, I suppose.  Also not new; news articles, TV editorials, and blog entries (of which, of course, this is one) which mock, deride, or otherwise note how quickly merchants seek to capitalize on the on very profitable holiday season.

I'm not going mock it, though.  I just wanted to note that although the early arrival and increasing length of the season seems to be universally scorned, the majority of folks seem to either roll with it or actually enjoy it when they get to the store or mall.  What's overlooked is that stores wouldn't do it if it drove away customers.  I, of course, have my own theories as to why that's the case.

Remember Christmas the way it really was!  I TRIPLE DOG
dare ya!
In the past couple of decades, we've been inundated with a wave of propaganda about the way the holiday season used to be.  How many times does It's a Wonderful Life play on TV between now and December 25th?  Or A Christmas Story?  Both movies present a simpler, idealized time with just enough familiarity to modern audiences to make them seem like real slices of life from days gone by.  Those fuzzy touch stones, some great acting and sparkling writing help us gloss over how treacly the stories really are.  Chronological distance makes them far more successful now than they ever were when they first came out.  Most people don't know that both movies actually didn't do so hot in the theaters when they first came out.  They only gained renown in the boom in cable channels back in the late 70s/early 80s.

I'm not dissing either of these films or any other movie, TV show or special that comes around again this time of year.  Heck, Dolores and I make it a point to sit down and watch both those flicks (along with her new favorite seasonal, Elf) at least once during the season, and I love throwing some Vince Guaraldi Trio on ITunes and putting up my reproduction of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree.  There's a calming feeling from these old favorites that takes us back to a time that stands up better in our minds that it ever did in reality.  There's nothing wrong with that in moderation.

The problem is when we become so enamored to the semi-illusory past that it makes the present harder to bear.  Like a addict who enjoys his highs so much that the time between fixes decreases more and more, we lengthen the period of time in which it is socially acceptable to revel in our own personal mythologies because that beats dealing with our current lives.  I'm not knocking personal mythologies, either.  My own is a doozy, and it gets better with every year.  What I'm warning against is when we stack up our semi-fictionalized memories of the past against the objective reality of the present and decide we'd rather live in the past.  That's comparing apples to oranges and determining that bananas win.

I love the feelings that watching Jimmy Stewart, Darren McGavin, and Snoopy bring me each year, but they don't compare to the love of watching my children grow and make their own lives, or enjoying the peace and quiet of a cool November Saturday alone with my wife and dog while homemade chili simmers in the crock pot.  Those exist in the here and now.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I love theists. It’s theism I can’t stand.

Take the sentiment and reverse it for me.
Last year one of my fellow teachers invited a bunch of us out to her house for a Christmas dinner party. We were there for about an hour when she gently pulled me to the side and very quietly and gently said, "I'm going to say grace before dinner. Is that going to be okay with you?"

Now let me make this utterly clear. She didn't say it in any sort of condescending or challenging way. She was genuinely concerned that I would be put out by the prayer, and she was simply doing her duty as a hostess to see to the wellbeing of her guests. I took it in the spirit it was intended and let her know that I was perfectly fine with it as long as it didn't require audience participation. It didn't, and after the forty-five seconds of prayer was over, we continued to have a good time for the evening.

That incident really typifies my experiences since I began letting people know my feelings on matters religious. I personally have experienced very little animosity from my theistic friends. People who know me just seem to accept it even if they don't understand or agree with it. From former students (Hi, Allison!) to fellow teachers, to the staff at the school, everyone seems to accept a person's beliefs as personal matter, and they don't let it cloud their ideas about what constitutes a good person or a good educator. The reverse is true as well. A number of folks close to me have deep rooted beliefs that I do not share in the least, but I recognize them as intelligent, vibrant, caring human beings who I am fortunate to have in my life.

I guess what it comes down to is that even though I feel on the large scale theistic beliefs do more harm than good, that doesn't mean that I hold the same for the individuals who accept those beliefs.