Thursday, December 6, 2007

Why Care What They Believe?

During a recent conversation with my brother (also a non-believer), he asked, what is the big deal if someone believes in God? Being able to clearly articulate why one has the opinions one does is always a good thing, so I thought about why I am as strident as I am. This essay is the result.

Belief in something called God is harmless enough if it is Spinoza’s God (this is the non-dice playing God that Einstein spoke of) that is manifest in the Natural Laws of the universe. The reason I am as strident as I am is that almost no one who says they believe in God believes in Spinoza’s God; the God they believe in is the personal, interventionist God of the Bible. This belief is, in turn, almost invariably the progenitor of a whole memeplex of subordinate propositions (proposition set #1):

· Adam and Eve were, literally, the first human beings on earth as recounted in the Book of Genesis

· The sun, quite literally, did stand still for Joshua

· Jesus really was born to a woman that never had intercourse until after Jesus was born, as described in the Gospels

· Jesus really turned water into wine (Pinot Noir?, Cabernet?, Merlot?) at Cana

· Jesus was Crucified by the provincial Roman authorities at the behest of Jewish Temple Priests, as told in the Gospels

· Jesus was actually dead for 2 or 3 days (the Gospels differ on just how long Jesus was dead)

· Jesus then actually came back to life and went on a bit of a “walkabout” and then bodily ascended to “heaven”

Religious believers accept these propositions as factually true in the same sense that most everyone (including religious believers) accepts the propositions listed below as factually true (proposition set #2):

· In 480 B.C.E., a small number of Greek warriors (approx. 5000) led by roughly 300 Spartans held a vastly larger (200,000 +) Persian army at bay for several days in a narrow pass known in antiquity as Thermopylae. This allowed Athenians to evacuate the city before it was burned by the Persian army and was the beginning of a national identity for Greeks and preserved Athenian ideas of democracy so that they survived to provide an ideal for our form of government today

· In 476 C.E., Rome fell

· In 1066, the battle of Hastings was fought in England, clinching the success of the Norman conquest of England, having a major impact on the subsequent history of England

· In 1620, Separatist Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts

· The United States fought a civil war during the period 1860-1864 over ideas of States Rights and slavery

· President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963

· On September 11th, 2001 the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers fell, killing 2,603 human beings

If one were to ask someone why they accept the items in proposition set #2 as factually true descriptions of events in human history, their reply would almost certainly entail an appeal to independently verifiable, objective evidence (i.e. archaeological, anthropological, historical, linguistic, etc.) and if they could not do so “off the cuff,” give them a set of encyclopedias and in short order they could look up the relevant information. If you were to ask a religious believer why they accept as factually true descriptions of events in human history the items proposition set #1, the reasons given will be dramatically different from the reasons given for accepting as true the items in proposition set #2.

Another difference between proposition sets 1 and 2 is that the items in set #2 are open to revision in the light of new evidence or information affecting the proposition in question. However, an essential characteristic of the items in proposition set #1 is that their content will never be subject to revision or correction based on new evidence, just ask a believer.

Somehow, despite the evidentiary shortcoming of their propositions, believers demand that we accord the same respect to their beliefs about God and Jesus that we accord to beliefs about the fall of the Roman Empire. I can’t do that. Believers seem unable to distinguish criticisms of the basis for a belief and criticisms of the person holding a belief. If questions are asked that they cannot answer, they get embarrassed and become offended.

Solving common problems in the world requires a common frame of reference, but more than that, the frame of reference must have some minimal correspondence to objective reality. The way the degree to which a proposition (or world view) matches up to reality is to test those propositions using the tools of reason, evidence, and logic.

It is a brute fact that if someone believes that the events in the life of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament are every bit as historically true and reliable as the current accounts of the life of Winston Churchill, there are some very important conversations that will not bear useful fruit.

I am in no way suggesting that laws be passed locking religious believers out of the “public square,” just as there are no laws on the books preventing astrologers from participating in public life. However, believers in astrology, those that consult their horoscopes before making a personal decision of any import, now know, by and large, that many other people consider their beliefs preposterous and it is generally counter productive to bring up one’s devotion to astrological propositions. Taking this analogy a bit further, what would society think if a devoted follower of astrology were assigned to jury duty and announced, unashamedly, that they had cast their ballot in the jury room based on the horoscope of the defendant? Think about that, then explain how it is that asking their fellow jurors to join them in “prayer,” beseeching God for “wisdom is somehow less irrational than consulting a horoscope rather than just sticking with their own faculty of reason and the evidence presented in court.

Just as those that believe in astrology realize that it would be personally embarrassing to place their beliefs on display during, say, a job interview, it is my hope that religious believers, while they ought to remain free to espouse whatever notions they wish as a matter of principle, like anyone else’s beliefs about astrology, the holocaust, or about a still-living Elvis, that their beliefs be subject to same standards of reasonableness and plausibility as any other notion or claim that people are asked to assent to.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Of course they know, this means WAR!



This disturbing photo was taken by an
acquaintance about a week ago. While this is,
of course, a true statement, the disturbing part
is that they seem to think reason is a bad thing.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Opinions, Facts, and How to Tell the Difference

In any kind of rational, informed discourse, especially the kind that is supposed to go on in a democracy or on a college campus, one must be able to distinguish between opinion and fact. In making this distinction, it is vital that the question, what is Truth (big “T”) and what is truth (small “t”) be answered. This is a question that philosophers have been asking since the time of the ancient Greeks. The next question is, is there a difference between Truth (big “T”) and truth (small “t”), and if so what is that difference, followed by; is it important, and if it is, how ought people make the distinction in conversations with others? Some examples may help…

A parent may consider it True (big “T”) that they love their children, but this something they can not prove in an easily verifiable sense. It does not follow that, because they cannot prove that they love their children, that it is equally impossible to prove anything else, like, for instance, that they are in fact, a biological parent of their children. It is quite easy to prove that it is true (small “t”), that they are or are not a biological parent of the children that call them Mom or Dad.

Opinions and facts lie on a continuum of statements or assertions that can be made about the world. Some opinions are entirely subjective and need not be supported by any relevant facts because there are no relevant facts. Other opinions, especially if one wishes them to be respected by others, must be supported by relevant evidence and/or logical argument. Arranged hierarchically these would be:

1. Facts

2. Claims that something about the nature or history of the world/universe is true where the degree to which we accept it as true is determined by the evidence for or against its being true.

3. Opinions that are derived from an interpretation of a line of evidence or argument.

4. Opinions that are a matter of personal taste and so need not be supported by specific facts or arguments.


The best way to illustrate this is through the use of specific examples:

a) As of September 19, 2007, San Francisco Giants left-fielder Barry Bonds has hit 762 career home runs. (http://www.sportsline.com/mlb/bondstracker/bondslog) This is a statement of an empirical fact.

b) The first European settlement in the New World was the Viking colony at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. This is a claim that purports to represent a fact about the Universe and whose truth value is determined by the quality of the evidence in favor of it and whose truth value may be re-evaluated in light of new, additional evidence.

c) The Seattle Seahawks are the greatest team to ever play the game of American football. This is a statement of opinion of the kind where the amount of intellectual respect we will grant it depends critically on the quality of the argument and/or evidence offered in its support.

d) Guinness Stout is better than any mass-produced American beer, with the exception of most Sam Adams varieties. This is a statement of personal preference and thus a purely subjective opinion requiring no defense or argument. (Unless, of course, you get into one of those silly “Tastes Great!” versus “Less Filling!” exchanges.)


The one that seems to give people the most trouble is b). Exactly why this should be is unclear. The example chosen for b) was very deliberately picked because it is not controversial.
It would have been easy enough to choose a controversial example, for instance, any number of religious claims that purport to represent facts about human history in the same sense that it is a fact of human history that in the Second World War the U.S. fought Germany, Italy, and Japan would certainly have stirred the pot.

Many human beings, if questioned in the most polite, respectful manner possible about the factual basis for their favorite truth claims, even those claims, that if true, would have a legitimate effect on public policy, can become very defensive. It is as though they were asked to come to the blackboard and work a problem in front of the class when they had not done their homework.

Americans live in a democracy where they are inculcated with the idea, from an early age, that they have a right to freedom of thought and opinion and that their opinion matters. This is a good thing. It is, nonetheless, an unfortunate fact of the world, especially in this media-centric, information-saturated age that there are far more things about which they might have an opinion than there is time to ensure that the opinion is an informed one. People are reluctant, when asked for their opinion, to admit that they have none. They are essentially embarrassed to admit that as a person whose opinion matters, that in the instance in question, they have no opinion. Extending this idea, when people are asked to elaborate on the factual basis for their most cherished truth claims, which they may not have given much thought to previously, they can become embarrassed and defensive when so questioned.

Thinking human beings have a duty to be intellectually honest about why what they think is so, is actually so. To say that one does not have an opinion on whether or not this or that is true (small “t”) is not something of which one need feel ashamed, it is in fact a courageous and intellectually honest stance to take when their opinion, were they to offer one, would be an uninformed one. Like any habit, the habit of offering up an uninformed opinion when pressured to do so in order to fit in, is a hard one to break. It is usually far more embarrassing in the long run to hold an uninformed opinion and be called on it, than to say when asked, that because they had not given it much thought before, they would prefer to not offer an opinion at that time.

This is something all human beings are prone to so it is important to keep the golden rule in mind. When the facts upon which a favorite belief or opinion is based are discovered to be not as solid as once thought, one should treat others as one would hope to be treated were the roles reversed, because eventually, they will be.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

I Am Now a Podcaster!!!!

Well, I have officially taken a dive into the word of podcasting! The inaugural installment of Rational Reflections is now available. I will try and have new shows at least monthly. This first episode is short and was originally intended to be part of a community podcast put on by the members of the RichardDawkins.net chat group. They are still trying to get the group podcast venture off the ground, but you know what they say about atheists and herds and cats. Enjoy!!

Rational Reflections 1

Friday, June 8, 2007

ADHD, IQ Tests, and Me

When I was a child in the early 1970’s, I was diagnosed as being “hyperactive,” today I would have been diagnosed as having Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Many of those who know me best today think that I still have ADHD. Normally, I like my somewhat scatterbrained “stream of consciousness” intellectual style, one way in which I describe myself is “The tangent is my favorite trig function, I’m always flying off on one.”

However, as a 42 y/o student going for an Electrical Engineering degree, in classes with students half my age, many of which were in honors math classes throughout high school, while little old me got straight D’s in 9th grade algebra, I found I had to work that much harder at putting in a 6 hour concentrated study session and staying focused throughout. This is now harder than it once was; when the “math light” however dimly, came on in my early 20’s, I started taking college courses and found that through a sheer effort of will and passion to learn, I managed to do okay. So in light of my current struggles, I undertook to see if I still had ADHD to such an extent that it would be treatable.

I expected to undergo a battery of tests administered by a psychologist and that indeed is what I got. During the interview portion of the tests, she asked me if I had ever taken an IQ test and I replied with a qualified “no.” My first college algebra book contained one of those little Mensa mini IQ tests and I had taken one of those online versions and did quite well (130’ish), but never a real IQ test, administered by a mental health professional.

The whole series of tests lasted about five hours spread over two days, 2 ½ hours at a time. The first day went well. The proctor gave me strings of numbers and or letters of increasing length and complexity and I was to repeat them as accurately as possible. I did quite well on this part, but when it came to repeating such strings backwards, I bombed. As I described it to the psychologist, it was like I was playing a game of Quidditch (from Harry Potter) and just when I thought I had the Golden Snitch (the answer) it would fly off like a bat out of hell.

During our chat prior to the second day’s tests, I asked the psychologist if the tests I was being given were an actual IQ test, for which I would get a score and she said yes. My eyebrows went up at that point and while I was not, to my mind, nervous, it was in the back of my mind throughout that day’s testing and for the next several days and one might go so far as to say that I was anxious to find out what my score was. I will freely admit that one source of my anxiety was my ego, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. The other, more rational reason, is the fact that things are not as easy for me in school as I had hoped they would be and if my score was low, then I would have to consider the very real possibility that I ought not to be in college.

One of the tests involved taking four to five tiles, each about 2 inches square, depicting little vignettes and arranging them so that they told a coherent story. I did quite well on them I noted that many of them had a humorous or ironic dénouement. I said as much to the psychologist and she said that the cognitive process of identifying irony and/or humor is quite subtle and closely correlates with intelligence. I then hitched a ride on my favorite trig function and brought up the “Danish Cartoon Fiasco” and how many Muslims must suffer from "Irony Deficiency Disorder.” In the aftermath of the Cartoon incident, pictures were shown world-wide of Muslims carrying signs which said things like “kill those who say Islam is a violent religion,” the blatant irony of their statement obviously lost on them.

So anyway, I got my report back today and yeah, I could join MENSA if I wanted, with points to spare. I also have ADHD, I have just become really good at compensating for it, which in turn drags down other areas that were tested which go into figuring a persons IQ. The point is that if you are having problems and don’t quite know why, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Also remember, do not let your score, low or high, go to your head. You can always improve and if you don’t use it you may loose it. It is not the talents that we have that determine our worth, it is whether, and how, we choose to make use of, and build upon, what we already have.

P.S. I am also pleased to report that they do attempt to figure in cultural differences when attempting to evaluate a person’s IQ and while such tests may not be perfect, efforts are being made to make them as relevant as possible.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Random Thoughts...

I haven’t written anything for a while because there were no really major issues I felt needed to be addressed. I will however, post a few observations about a number of seemingly trivial issues and maybe some additional things will come to mind as I write.

Ever since I began publicly declaring myself as an atheist I have endeavored to find like-minded people, both in the “real world” and on the web and this has proven a very difficult task indeed. On a more personal note (I suppose that this is where my romanticism creeps in), I have been divorced now for 6 years, and for a time, explored the possibility of a more intimate relationship with a woman. Of course she would have to be of the same intellectual and philosophical bent as I, but finding such a someone has proven nigh impossible, especially given where I am living for the moment. There are several web sites out there that purport to be a way to meet atheist/agnostic singles, so I gave them a shot. Sorry to say, I was not impressed. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I think not.

Over the last 10 years or so I have had occasion to view personal ads on the web at sites like Match.com and Yahoo! Personals. The ads people post, if not the people themselves, are invariably deeply superficial. For comparison purposes and to be completely fair to the ladies, I checked out the ads other straight men were posting and they were every bit as shallow. When it came to the atheist/agnostic singles sites, I found exactly the same lack of depth with the only difference being the fact that they professed to be non-believers. In many cases, their non-belief seemed superficial as well and used mainly for shock value and to affect the appearance of being hip or edgy, much like the infatuation with the satanic trappings brandished during the heyday of heavy-metal rockers like Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss, Judas Priest, and that exemplar of their generation X progeny, Marilyn Manson. I have realized that atheists of any real intellectual substance are not likely to use such avenues, or like me, if they have, they quickly became disgusted.

It has also been difficult to find online communities of atheists, freethinkers, and agnostics. The Usenet groups devoted to atheists and agnostics are practically empty, Yahoo has ignored repeated entreaties to open (or re-open) a chat room for atheists and agnostics, and it is hard to find active, lively venues for stimulating conversation, the forging of new friendships, the magnification of individual action through group efforts, and if I may go to far, maybe even finding that someone special. I have recently found a few active chat sites for atheists/agnostics and I will be posting a list of such sites soon. If anyone out there knows of any more, please feel free to drop me a line.

Richard Dawkins has observed that organizing atheists is akin to “herding cats” and this would seem borne out by what I have found, as I outlined above. Dawkins also observed that there are more “out” atheists in this country than there are observant Jews and they wield political power that is far out of proportion to their numbers (LET ME BE VERY CLEAR HERE AS MY WORDS COULD BE EASILY TWISTED, EVEN BY HONEST PEOPLE), however, this is NOT the result of some shadowy conspiracy on the part of Jewish folks, rather, it is due to the millenarianism of the Christian Right whose interpretation of the Book of Revelations, accords great significance to the fate of the Nation of Israel as it pertains to the Second Coming of Christ.

This situation can be changed, but it will not be easy. I am not advocating that atheists suppress their individual differences in order to present some sort of faux “united front” to the rest of the world. What we can do is to agree to hold believers, of all stripes, to the same standards of intellectual honesty, logic, reason, and evidence. We can make it very clear to them at the outset of any dialog, that while they have every right to make their case (the choice of the “legal” terminology is deliberate), we have a right to subject them to a rigorous cross-examination and that their assertions will have to meet the same standard of “reasonable doubt” as actual courtroom testimony. We would do well to keep in mind when in the above sort of situations all the courtroom dramas we have seen on TV and in movies, and that, as in an actual court of law, there are some basic rules regarding the treatment of witnesses and that being resolute in our application of reason to specific claims people make does not and should not necessitate being cruel or malicious in our discussions with believers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

This showed up in my inbox recently and I had to protest and I sent my response in a Word document to all the people in the "to" field of the original email. The text of the Word document is in double quotes.

"Some of you may have recently received the below as one of those annoying, endlessly forwarded emails and as a thinking human being I could not let this piece of pious drivel go by unchallenged. My comments will be in blue and all grammatical errors will be as in the original.

Just think about it. How scary this can be. We all need to do our part to keep it from happening. We can change things one day at at time and one person at a time.

Allah or the Lord Jesus Christ?


...A Bit Scary


This is very interesting and just a bit scary ... The Muslim religion is the fastest growing religion per capita in the United States , especially in the minority races!!!

This statement is not precisely true. If however, you limit the discussion to the monotheistic religions, i.e. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, then yes, Islam is the fastest growing of that group of three.


Allah or The Lord Jesus Christ? ... By Rick Mathes Last month I attended my annual training session that's required for maintaining my state prison security clearance. During the training session there was a presentation by three speakers representing the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Muslim faiths, who explained each of their beliefs.

I can only imagine what those “explanations” consisted of. I would think that a detailed explanation/debate on whether or not unicorn horns are hollow or the exact coloration of male vs. female fairy wings would have about the same rational content as the “explanation” referred to above.

I was particularly interested in what the Islamic Imam had to say. The Imam gave a great presentation of the basics of Islam, complete with a video.

After the presentations, time was provided for questions and answers.

When it was my turn, I directed my question to the Imam and asked: "Please, correct me if I'm wrong, but I understand that most Imams and clerics of Islam have declared a holy jihad [Holy war] against the infidels of the world and, that by killing an infidel, (which is a command to all Muslims) they are assured of a place in heaven. If that's the case, can you give me the definition of an infidel?"

There was no disagreement with my statements and, without hesitation, he replied, "Non-believers! "

I responded, "So, let me make sure I have this straight. All followers of Allah have been commanded to kill everyone who is not of your faith so they can have a place in heaven. Is that correct?"

In light of the gentleman’s above question for the Imam, my question to Christian faith-heads would be: How is Allah any different from the Yahweh of the Old Testament (OT)? And don’t even try to maintain that because of the New Testament (NT), all the rules have changed, because for every NT scripture you come up with that alludes to a change in the rules, I can come up with a NT passage that says that all the law of the OT is still in effect!

The expression on his face changed from one of authority and command to that of "a little boy who had just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar."
He sheepishly replied, "Yes." I then stated, "Well, sir , I have a real problem trying to imagine Pope John Paul commanding all Catholics to kill those of your faith or Dr. Stanley ordering all Protestants to do the same in order to guarantee them a place in heaven!" The Imam was speechless!

This part above is what motivated me speak out. How blind to their own hypocrisy can Christian faith-heads be? This is every bit as stupid as the Muslims who were running around in the aftermath of the “Danish Cartoon Fiasco” of several years ago in which Muslims were seen to be carrying signs that said “Kill those that say Islam is a violent religion.” All “People of Faith” truly suffer from an “Irony Deficit Disorder.” It was not all that long ago when Christian leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, were instructing their followers to do precisely that. Duh, Northern Ireland! Duh, Bosnia! It is also false that killing unbelievers or dying a martyr’s death is believed necessary to get to the Islamic Paradise. Just as in the concept of “jewels in the crown” for Christian believers, doing certain things for Allah’s greater glory does ensure greater glory and reward upon reaching paradise but is not an absolute requirement for getting there. Also, it was only 150 years ago that Catholics were forcibly removing Jewish children from their parents if it was believed, on almost no evidence, that they had been baptized. The baptism need not even have been done by a member of the clergy, sprinkling of bathwater on an infant by a Catholic nanny hired by Jewish parents (the Catholic nannies were allowed to work seven days a week) was considered sufficient.

The reason Christians (Catholics or Protestants) are not killing heretics or unbelievers en masse today (at least not in Western, civilized countries) is not because they had some profound ethical insight which led them to conclude it was wrong to so. The only reason it is no longer done is because of changes in the larger society have made it inexpedient for them to do so. If Christians thought they could get away with killing unrepentant non-believers, if the clearly stated goals of the majority of Christians are realized and a Christian theocracy is established in the United States, based on Christian history and current events, I have no reason to conclude, based on that evidence, that Christians would not brutally suppress and even kill those that refuse to adopt their way of non-thinking.

I continued, "I also have problem with being your 'friend' when you and your brother clerics are telling your followers to kill me! Let me ask you a question. Would you rather have your Allah, who tells you to kill me in order for you to go to heaven, or my Jesus who tells me to love you because I am going to heaven and He wants you to be there with me?"

What I have a problem with are people that demand that I take seriously their preposterous beliefs about the factual state of the world for which they are incapable of providing any coherent evidence for. As far as the teachings of Jesus being all about love, for every one a Christian faith-head throws out about “Jesus/God is Love,” from the gospels I can provide one from the gospels which entails a violent, militaristic intolerance for unbelievers. The message is very, very inconsistent and maintaining the “Jesus/God is Love” requires an awful lot of “cherry picking” on the part of Christian faith-heads.

You could have heard a pin drop as the Imam hung his head in shame. Needless to say, the organizers and/or promoters of the 'Diversification' training seminar were Not happy with Rick's way of dealing with the Islamic Imam and exposing the truth about the Muslims' beliefs. In twenty years there will be enough Muslim vot ers in the U.S. To elect the President! I think everyone in the U.S . should be required to read this, but with the Liberal justice system, liberal media and the ACLU, there is no way this will be widely publicized.

The only reason this has not made headlines is because Christian (and other) faith-heads have so thoroughly sold the American public on the ridiculous notion that it is impolite to honestly criticize people’s religious faith and the societal consequences of religious faith; we are free to criticize and even discount those who believe that Elvis is alive and well onboard a flying saucer, but to demand a rational explanation of the equally preposterous virgin birth or resurrection, no we can’t do that, that’s not fair. That attitude on the part of faith-heads of all stripes is a load of crap and is merely a way for faith-heads to avoid the embarrassment of having to give a rational accounting of why they believe what they do because deep down they know that they don’t have one!

Please pass this on to all your e-mail contacts.

This is a true story and the author, Rick Mathes, is a well-known leader in prison ministry.

The Man who walks with God always gets to his destination.

If you have a pulse you have a purpose."

Friday, May 11, 2007

I am continually frustrated when I hear people in public forums, i.e. news programs, letters to the editor and the like, make bald assertions that in 5 minutes of web searching can shown to be without merit. This piece was originally written in response to a letter to the editor published in the Rapid City Journal the week of 22 April, 2007. My original reply was never published due to length. As I observed to the editor of the Journal, it is pathetically easy to spout a great deal of nonsense in 200 words or less but to clear up nonsense takes far more than 200 words, especially if one cares about the truth and in communicating it clearly and in enough detail to be compelling. In the original letter to which this was meant as a reply, the author asserted that it would take thousands of years for the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere to double so how could anyone be so gullible as to think there was any real danger? He sought to make his case by throwing around some numbers, so I took up the challenge.


According the web site http://hypertextbook.com/facts/1999/LouiseLiu.shtml which lists figures from a number of reputable sources, the mass of the Earth’s atmosphere is around 5.3∙1018 kg. According to another web site, http://www.biocrawler.com/encyclopedia/Earth's_atmosphere, the percentage, by mass, of CO2 in the atmosphere is 0.053% or 0.00053. This may not sound like much, but before one rejects it out of hand, consider that a lethal dose of vitamin A, which in proper amounts is essential for human health, can occur at 9,000,000, or 9∙106, IU’s,∙which roughly equates to 1.8 grams. Compared to the weight of a 72.6 kg (160 lb) person, these 1.8 grams represent 0.0000247 or roughly 0.0025% of their body weight, so small things can make a big difference. Getting back to CO2, according to yet another web site, http://www.llnl.gov/str/May05/Friedmann.html, the amount of CO2 released into the Earth’s atmosphere resulting from human activity annually is 25 billion tons, minus 2 to 3 billion tons absorbed by forests, minus another 7 billion tons absorbed by the oceans. This webpage, from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, also points out that the 7 billion tons absorbed by the oceans can have its own negative effects, like raising the acidity of the ocean’s waters which would disrupt the base of the oceanic food chain by making it difficult, if not impossible (given our current understanding), for plankton to form their tiny shells. That leaves 15 billion tons (US) of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere that was not there before. Converting that to kilograms yields a figure of 13.6∙1012 kg. Note that these are “back of the envelope” calculations and are merely meant to provide a picture of magnitude.

By multiplying the mass of the atmosphere as a whole by the percentage of CO2 in it we get a figure of 2.809∙1015 kg for the mass of CO2 in the atmosphere. The 13.6∙1012 kg of CO2 which is put into the atmosphere by human activity and NOT otherwise absorbed each year is 0.484% of the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. What we have here, in effect, is a problem involving simple interest! Our principal, P, is the 2.809∙1015 kg normally present in the Earth's atmosphere, where the ending balance each year is given by P*(1+n*i) where i is the interest rate (0.484%), and n is the number of periods, in this case, measured in years.

Given all of this, we can calculate how long it would take to increase the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere by 150% or by a factor of 1.5. In equation form this would be 2.809∙1015(1 + n∙(0.00484)) = 1.5∙2.809∙1015. If you do the math, solving for n yields a figure of 103 years. To double, the required time is 206 years. This may seem like a long time, but remember, we are not at time zero here and I am assuming "simple" interest. We have been pouring CO2 into our atmosphere since the start of the modern industrial era and the effect of the extra CO2 is not instantaneous and there is likely a lag, on the order of decades, between the time when the CO2 enters the atmosphere and when that excess CO2 begins to affect global temperatures.

Also consider that 1.5 times the present amount of CO2 may not seem like much but when you consider that, according to numerous sources, including http://www.gmitoxics.com/jan06_killer_article.html, even a decrease of only 1% to 2% in the amount of oxygen (O2) we get has appreciable effects on us humans, and when one considers how much smaller the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is than the amount of O2 and also considering that, even for the tiny amount that there is in the atmosphere, it is what keeps us from being a frozen world like Mars or a hellish hothouse like Venus, I fail to see on what rational basis anyone can dismiss this as trivial.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Why I May Seem So Strident

Well, I know that at least one other person has read my blog. It was an old friend of mine that I had not thought to hear from again that also happens to be a stunningly attractive woman. Anyway, her advice to me was to “be myself, but tone it down.” As it has been a while since I last posted anything, I thought I might make a reply to my gorgeous friend and other persons of faith who might be reading this, by expanding on why I may seem, at least to some, so strident. The following points are going to mainly apply to those that come from the Christian tradition. I will also make reference to items from the news and the history of Christianity which any person of Christian faith ought to be aware. This is entirely in the spirit of I Peter 3: 14-16, which admonishes believers to “…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” (KJV) As with anyone who maintains an opinion on any subject (be it the virgin birth or auto mechanics), if they are shown to be ignorant of basic facts and current events relevant to the opinion they hold, then their opinion is worthless. Additionally, if, after being told of the gaps in their knowledge, they persist in their point of view, they can justly be considered a fool.

I am going to address two general topics that touch on different aspects of why I come off the way I do.

1. The first topic is that of morality and public policy. First, we have to define what morality is and what it is not. Morality is about how we treat other human beings and how our actions affect their happiness and well-being in the here and now. By these criteria, turning a blind eye to injustice and human suffering is immoral. That said I will move on to a specific incident/example. According to recent news stories(1) the new vice-President of the National Association of Evangelicals came under fire from James Dobson (of Focus on the Family fame) for his efforts to get the Association to take a stand against our government’s use of torture and for environmental stewardship (caring for God’s creation and all that). Dobson’s (and other’s) justification for this criticism of the vice-President, Richard Cizik, was that it distracted the faithful from the pressing “moral” issues of “gay marriage” and abortion.

First off let me say that abortion is becoming a bona-fide, rationally-based moral issue. There is no evidence for the notion of souls in a Petri-dish and I have yet to hear a rational (i.e. no talk of immortal souls or of vague notions of “potential” allowed) argument as to in what possible sense a 3-day old blastocyst could be considered a “human life,” because first you would have to define (and defend) your definition of a “human life.” The reason that abortion is becoming a genuine moral issue is because of advancements in neonatal care that make it possible for babies delivered as early as 18 weeks premature to survive to the point where they can, at the very least, go home with the parents. If it would be considered murder to kill an 18 week premature baby in an incubator in a neonatal intensive care unit (I think we can all agree with that), I can imagine no moral or ethical argument that would permit the abortion of an otherwise healthy fetus, at the same stage of development as the one in the neonatal intensive care unit, carried by a healthy woman capable of safely (for both the mother and the fetus) carrying the baby to term. Please note the underlined portions, they are important and I will be merciless to those that quote me out of context.

Moving on, by what informed, well thought out, rational piece of moral reasoning are we to accept the assertion that “gay marriage” is a “moral” issue for society at large, but the systematic torture of human beings by agents of a supposedly enlightened democracy, i.e. the United States, is not a “moral” issue!!!??? In terms of civil law, marriage is a contract, like any other contract. Conservative Christians have as much a right to demand that the doctrinal dictates of their particular brand of Christianity regarding marriage and sexuality form part of civil law as Orthodox Jews have to demand that once Bar-Mitzvahed, a 13 year old male be considered an adult in the eyes of the law. Obviously, they have no such right.

The desire of two consenting adults that just happen to be of the same sex to form a personal, physical, economic, and legally binding relationship (which is what heterosexual marriage is in the eyes of the law) based on mutual love and respect harms no one in any rationally demonstrable way. While how the two people involved treat each other obviously has a moral dimension, it is not a “moral” issue for the general public at all. However, there is a word that describes what is going on when believers are afraid that the “god” that they believe in will become angry at them because of the personal choices of their neighbors that, by the way, do not believe as they do, and that apart from irrational psychological distress over “god’s wrath,” does no rationally demonstrable harm to the believer. The above behavior is best described by the term “pious,” in the sense of adherence to a specific religious tenet. The idea that one could be compelled by law, to act, in either word or deed, as though one subscribed to religious beliefs that one does not, in fact, subscribe to, is the absolute antithesis of the ideals upon which our nation was founded.

People that cannot make the distinction between moral/immoral actions, i.e. those actions which add or detract from, respectively, the real happiness, suffering, just treatment of, and well-being of our fellow human beings in the here-and-now, and pious actions, i.e. adherence to the demands of a particular religious tradition, are either self-deluded, intellectually dishonest, morally crippled, or all three, and I will continue to demand that they explain themselves whenever they open their mouths outside of houses of worship. My sense of personal, moral, and intellectual honesty (which are REAL moral virtues) demand no less of me.

2. I have a brother, whom I love and respect that is in the Army (I myself am retired Navy) and in September 2005, he got orders to Afghanistan and sent his children, who were being raised Catholic, to live with my parents for about a year. As I was in the same town and my parents are devout evangelical Protestants, I agreed to take my niece and nephew to Mass during that time. Because of my religious upbringing, I knew how to behave in a house of worship and knew many, but not all, of the hymns. In fact, I enjoyed singing those hymns that I fondly remembered from my childhood, and I still do, in the same sense that I enjoy singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” even though I know Rudolph is not real, and with the traditional hymns, unlike “Rudolph,” the music and the cadence of the songs are often very moving. This was fall 2005, and the controversy regarding the historicity of The DaVinci Code was going strong. For several weeks during that fall, there were announcements of classes and workshops devoted to debunking the claims in The DaVinci Code using the tools of legitimate historical inquiry. I found this utterly laughable and the height of arrogant, pious hypocrisy. The DaVinci Code belongs to the same genre of fiction as do the works of James Michener or Tom Clancy, where the authors take known events, situations, or technologies and extrapolate from them, with some authors extrapolating more than others. The idea that the history of Christianity, which has played a tremendous role in the history of Western civilization, is somehow off-limits to writers of historical/extrapolative fiction is arrogant beyond belief. Believers are just fine with the Left Behind series, but not the The DaVinci Code? I guess they do not object when the fiction is in accord with their beliefs but if it is contrary to their beliefs then that constitutes a form of blasphemy. What blatant hypocrisy!!!! What a double standard!!!!

This is, however, just the tip of the hypocrisy iceberg. The second species of hypocrisy at work here is the fact that believers are quite happy to use the tools of legitimate historical inquiry to attack ideas they do not agree with, but how do you think they would react to having the same tools applied to a critical examination of their core beliefs? They would cry foul to high heaven (pun intended).

Let’s go ahead and apply some of those tools to an examination of the life and work of the apostle Paul. Most scholars agree(2) that the earliest epistle of Paul, the book of Galatians, dates from about 48 C.E. to no later than 55 C.E. The first Gospel to be written was that of Mark, sometime between the late 60’s or early 70’s C.E.(3), likely after the death of Paul in 67 C.E.(4), in Rome during Nero’s persecution of Christians. The writings of Paul, as well as Luke, the likely author of the Acts of the Apostles(5), assert that he knew, first hand, those who knew Jesus while he was alive and yet, the only events in the life of Jesus mentioned by Paul are his crucifixion, death, and resurrection! No parables, no sayings, no virgin birth, no shepherds in the fields, no Magi, no nothing. This is suspicious and makes me think that perhaps the details of Jesus's life we made up, after the fact, after Christianity was on the rise. Were such arguments and evidence as Christians commonly trot out for the "historical reality" of Christ, presented, despite the hurdles to credibility I just mentioned, in a scholarly paper in a subject other than religion, would get one hounded out of the history department as a moron were it not for the exaggerated and misguided respect paid to “religion.” I utterly reject the notion that there are two sets of rules for determining the veracity of a claim, one for religious claims and one for profane, i.e. non-religious, claims.

One last piece of advice, don’t allow your faith to write checks your intellect can’t cash. You will feel embarrassed and others will think you a fool.

References

(1) http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=6&hid=15&sid=99677cca-7126-410c-9ad5-bce7e82195e6%40SRCSM1

http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=4&sid=ed2f075f-5b1c-4a87-8a98-6031193657c3%40sessionmgr9

http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=12&sid=76dd6f45-947d-4683-a06a-8260165e59aa%40sessionmgr9

(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_of_Tarsus

(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Mark

(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_of_Tarsus

(5) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acts_of_the_Apostles

An Open Letter to Believers

We all have a right to our opinion and the right to voice it. As a thinking human being, I have a duty to evaluate the opinions that come my way (as well as the people who espouse them) on their merits. By this I mean that if I voice an opinion on say, economics or history, I then have, having voiced an opinion, a duty to defend my opinion through reasoned, rational argument supported by objective, testable facts and evidence, and relevant knowledge or expertise (in other words, one not need be a Ph.D. in a particular field, sometimes an extremely well-informed layperson will do just fine). Furthermore, (and this is where the part about evaluating the people who hold the opinions in question, whatever they may be, comes in), if the arguments and evidence on which my opinions are based FAILS to withstand the critical scrutiny of adequately informed opposing parties, I have a duty to acknowledge defeat. Should I continue to espouse a particular opinion after I have been made aware of its shortcomings and refuse to acknowledge its defeat because my opinion supports an underlying irrational belief which I am unwilling to change despite any, no matter how compelling, evidence to the contrary, then I can expect to be fairly, and justly, labeled a fool and possibly a hypocrite.

In this great country of ours, no beliefs or opinions are out of bounds for questioning, religious beliefs included. There are too many sadly misinformed (or just plain intellectually blind) people who believe that the United States (the country) was founded upon “Christian” ideals. Our country, and its form of government, was in truth, founded upon the ideals of the 17th and 18th century European Enlightenment, which was itself part of a larger period now known as the Age of Reason, both of which emphasized a rational (i.e. naturalistic), empirical basis for science, art, literature, morality and ethics, as well as for government.

I will grant that many of the first settlers in America fled religious persecution back home, wherever home may have been. But sadly, once they got here, they immediately continued to perpetuate the very intolerance they had originally fled. Of course with them being on the majority side this time, they found that being in the majority position was too big a temptation (what’s that saying about power corrupting?) What a difference suddenly finding oneself in the majority makes in ones perception of good and evil, right and wrong!. Thank God that such people played no part in the founding of our form of government or in the writing of our Constitution (by the way, the irony of my invoking God was intentional). Most religious conservatives seem to fail to make a distinction between the leaders of the puritanical witch-hunters of the Massachusetts Bay colony (which is where Ronald Reagan got his "shining city on a hill" phrase from, and which was in fact, a reflection of the Puritans' desire to build in the New World, the "New Jerusalem" spoken of in the end-time prophesies in the Bible) and the leaders of the Constitutional Convention, men the likes of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and James Madison. While Thomas Jefferson did not attend the convention as he was at that time our ambassador to France, of all the state constitutions which influenced the writing of the national Constitution, Virginia’s Constitution, to which Jefferson was a major contributor, was one of the most influential. Specifically, Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and on which the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is based.

Here is a partial quote from the text of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

"...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain (emphasis mine, meaning that their beliefs are not somehow “off limits” and that others are free to question them), their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

Section 3 declares "...that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights (emphasis mine, to point out that they are NOT divinely ordained, and to which I will provide a clue to Jefferson’s own thoughts on the issue in a moment) of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right."

I have included some more quotes that shed light on this common misunderstanding of our history:

Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.

-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.

-Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom

Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

In conclusion, I wish to make a reply to the charge of arrogance, to which people of my intellectual and philosophical bent are often subjected. I endeavor not to have “beliefs,” but rather, to have “conclusions,” which have a connotation of being based on evidence, and which the term “belief” does not.

I only profess and maintain those assertions which I feel I have sufficient objective, testable evidence to support. This is, I feel, the very opposite of arrogance, and is often called humility. To put it in language suitable for the more simple-minded, I am humble enough to not to have beliefs which I cannot prove, or at the very least, argue plausibly for. I am also willing to change those conclusions or beliefs in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. Those who maintain belief in things that lack supporting evidence, or have been credibly falsified, who feels that no matter what the evidence to the contrary, they are right and everyone else is wrong, they are the ones who are arrogant. Those who blithely use computers, without which the rules and equations of quantum mechanics that govern the behavior of CD lasers and semi-conductor chips, would not work, and yet simultaneously maintain that those same equations and rules when applied to the beginnings of the universe are somehow invalid, they are ARROGANT. Those who get their yearly flu shots, which are based on projections of the year-to-year EVOLUTION of the influenza virus, yet simultaneously maintain that those same rules of population genetics do not and cannot apply to higher organisms are ARROGANT. To be quite blunt, who the hell are they, having no particular expertise or relevant knowledge of the field in question, to say that they know where the lines between where our knowledge applies and where it does not, ought to drawn? That is to me the very height of ARROGANCE and HYPOCRISY.

Arguing with a "True Believer"

Introduction

I would like to take this opportunity to address some frequently encountered arguments used whenever believers are attempting to convert a non-believer. I am doing this in the somewhat forlorn hope that having disposed of the arguments of the faithful here, they will actually take them onboard and non-believers will not encounter them again. But of course, who am I kidding? At the very least, when such believers roll out the same old arguments non-believers can have the pleasure of pointing out that it has been addressed elsewhere and telling them to shut up and move on.

A note about “respect”

Before I begin, I want to say a word about “respect,” and what it means in a supposedly rational, democratic, enlightened society. I feel this is necessary because invariably, some who read this will feel that their beliefs are not being “respected” in the way they feel they should. Five minutes of web surfing will show that there are any number of “weird” beliefs out there. Two easy examples are Holocaust denial and Elvis conspiracies. I will be the first to admit that people have every right hold these beliefs and to argue for them, and in that narrow sense I “respect” their right to their beliefs. Another sense of the word “respect” that comes into play when used in the context of ideas or opinions means to “defer to,” to “hold in esteem,” or to grant weight or credibility to, the content of an idea or proposition based on the idea’s or proposition’s ability to withstand critical scrutiny. In the case of Holocaust denial and Elvis conspiracies, I have no respect for the content of those ideas at all. I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s memorable phrase from his “I have a Dream” speech where he expresses his hope that one day his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."1 Just as individual human beings deserve to judged by the “content of their character,” so too ought their opinions and beliefs be judged by their contents and if necessary, mistakes, errors, fallacies pointed out and corrected.

The evil consequences of “atheism”

While many believers will admit, though somewhat reluctantly, that Christianity is guilty of excesses and atrocities in the past such as witch hunts, Inquisitions, and the Crusades, they are quick to point out the purported bloody excesses of “atheism” in the 20th Century. Commonly flouted examples are:

1. National Socialism and Evolution in Germany, c.a. 1930-1945 (Nazis)
2. The “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkan states following the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe c.a. 1991-1999.
3. Stalinist Russia
4. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, c.a. 1976-1979

Nazi anti-Semitism, Evolution, and Balkan “ethnic cleansing”

Of these four examples, I will first address numbers 1 and 2 due to the common elements these two share to the exclusion of numbers 3 and 4.
Nazi Anti-Semitism and Evolution

Hitler frequently used the language and rhetoric of Christianity and on at least one well known occasion, in Mein Kampf, favorably compared himself to the image of Jesus driving the money-changers from the Temple, saying that Jesus "made no secret of his attitude toward the Jewish people, and when necessary he even took the whip to drive from the temple of the Lord this adversary of all humanity, who then as always saw in religion nothing but an instrument for his business existence. In return, Christ was nailed to the cross." Later in Mein Kampf he wrote: "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."2

Hitler was not alone in his anti-Semitism either. Anti-semitism in Europe had deep roots, all pointing back to the earliest days of the Christian Church when, especially in the eyes of the Roman authorities, the Christians were merely an offshoot of Judaism.3 Given the trouble the Jews gave the Romans, after a certain point, the early Christians were eager to differentiate themselves from Judaism proper. This desire to differentiate themselves from Judaism (and thus be spared Roman reprisals against the Jews) may have been one of the reasons that Christians chose to celebrate “the Lord’s Day” as Sunday, the day Christ was said to have risen from the dead, rather than Saturday, the traditional Jewish Sabbath. 4

This hostility towards Jews on the part of some Christians did not begin to wane until the advent of “Dispensational Restorationism,” which was a subset of beliefs surrounding the Dispensationalist movement starting around 1820 in England. Dispensational Restorationism made the fate of the Jewish people an essential part of Christian eschatology and essential to the unfolding of “God’s Plan” for the “end times.” Because of this, many Christian sects took an active interest in the welfare of Jews. In the interest of intellectual honestly, a trait which is not shared by many Christians today, I will say that this likely helped to offset the harm to Jewish people done by other Christians who still thought of them as “Christ killers.” 5

I will freely admit that, in his private life, Hitler was not in any recognizable sense, a “Christian,” but Hitler’s private beliefs are not the point. The point is that he was able to reconcile his racist dogma and “Christianity” to the extent that the German people bought into his ideas and were able to square it with their Christian beliefs. Note that the ideas of Dispensational Restorationism came mainly out of England and were never that big in Germany, which was still largely Catholic or “old-school” protestant, so Dispensational Restorationism was not much of an impediment to the Germans falling for Hitler’s rhetoric, “hook, line, and sinker.”
Religionists also like to bring up Hitler’s invocation of Darwin, mostly in the context of attempting to discredit evolution – a kind of “guilt by association.” To Hitler, tying his racist ideas to Darwinian evolution was merely just one more of the many rhetorical devices he used to sell his notions of racial superiority. From childhood, he was raised and confirmed as a Catholic, so he almost certainly absorbed the anti-Semitism from his religious education and practice long before he ever heard of Darwin or Evolution by Natural Selection. Hitler’s “Darwinism” was even more of a caricature of Darwinian Evolution than his “Christianity” was a caricature of common Christianity. This leads me to the important point that anti-Semitism was very much a part of the German religious and cultural milieu in which he spent his youth. Believers’ entire argument for the Darwin-Nazi connection is a complete logical fallacy known as “unstated major premise” which happens “when one makes an argument which assumes a premise which is not explicitly stated.”6 In this case, the unstated premise is that an acceptance of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection, as explicated by Darwin, is either a sufficient or necessary cause of racism is patently absurd! For thousands of years of human history there have always been ethnic/national groups that felt that they had a special place/destiny in the Universe, like Yahweh’s personal favorites (drum roll please!)…the children of Israel! It is blatantly and obviously false that the acceptance of Darwinian evolution leads to racism or horrible crimes of genocide. The only reason Hitler was able to murder 5-6 million Jews from the late 1930’s through 1945 is technology (i.e. gas chanbers, etc)! If the ancient Israelites had 20th century technology, they would have piously slaughtered not just Canaanites, but everyone else on the planet if they could have, merely because Yahweh said they were his special race. Or what would the Middle East look like today had the pious "Christian" Crusaders had access to 20th century weapons and technology. The realization that, through a slow process of Evolution, we are related to every other living thing on this earth, is not required for such horrors, but an absolute belief that you are right, and everyone else is wrong and therefore damned, certainly is.

Race-based slavery in the United States ended (in 1864) only after Darwin published his “Origin of Species” (in 1859), and prior to the abolition of slavery in the United States, slave owners found much of their justification for slavery in the Bible. Granted, there were also biblical passages that were used by abolitionists, but that proves nothing, one could also find equally nice, or nasty, passages in the Iliad, but we no longer worship Zeus, does that mean we should start? Therefore, the religious elements of the militant anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany was not much of stretch when the starting point is the Christian anti-Semitism (and general racism) of a Germany and Austria attempting to come to grips with the humiliating terms forced upon it in the Treaty of Versailles and quite eager to find, in an ironic twist, a scapegoat. 7 I do not want to ever hear it said that the atrocities of Nazi Germany were somehow motivated by “atheism” or “evolutionism.”


Ethnic Cleansing

Item number 2, “ethnic cleansing,” is a blatant misnomer. The Balkan conflict was religious in nature, pitting Muslims (Islamists), Serbs (Orthodox Christians), and Croats (Roman Catholics) against each other. Under Communist rule, these three groups had been intermarrying for years because their religions, which would have normally prevented such “ecumenical” behaviors, were made a “non-issue” by their communist overlords. When communism fell, age-old religiously motivated hatreds were brought back to the fore and the fighting broke out, often ripping families apart along religious lines.

Ideological Absolutism

Numbers 1 through 4 above are all related by what I will call “ideological absolutism.” This is any belief, religious or not, which claims to have an absolute lock on the TRUTH, forever and for all time. “We are absolutely right and therefore anyone who is not like us or does not believe as we do is damned, whether here or in some hereafter.”

The “Prove you love your _________" argument.

When confronted with the lack of any real evidence of God’s existence, a favorite riposte from believers is to challenge the non-believer to “Prove you love your ___________.” (fill in the blank with spouse, children, parents, dog, goldfish, etc.) This is a bait-and-switch of the sort only a moron (or was that a Mormon?) would make. The debate started with God’s existence, and somehow segued to how the non-believer feels about their loved ones. An argument-ending reply is to say something like “We were talking about God’s existence; I can, by DNA analysis, prove the existence of, and my genetic relationship to, my parents, children, and, through millions of years of evolution, even to the dog and goldfish. I asked you to prove the existence of God, not if you ‘love’ it. If that is the best argument you can mount, game over!”


The supposed “arrogance” of atheists

A frequent charge leveled against atheists is that of arrogance. How is it arrogant to, paraphrasing Thomas Henry Huxley, assert the truth of a proposition only to the degree that is warranted by the evidence for said proposition? That sounds more like modesty or humility to me. The ones who are arrogant are those who immodestly claim to be absolutely certain of their beliefs in the face of a deficit of confirmatory evidence and/or a prodigious amount of disconfirming evidence.

Conclusions

As non-believers, we must not let believers continue to trot out these idiotic arguments and go unchallenged. Nor do we have any more of an obligation to be nice or respectful of religionist beliefs than we do of the holocaust denier’s beliefs. These people need to be challenged whenever they publicly advocate that their believes be part of public policy. This does not mean that we need to resort to ad hominem attacks, but pointing out the unreason and subtle biases contained in someone else’s argument is not an ad hominem attack; they may feel as though they have been personally attacked and made to feel stupid, but that is their problem, not ours.


References

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_have_a_dream

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Hitler%27s_religious_beliefs

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti_Semitism

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunday#Sunday_and_the_Sabbath

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supersessionism#Restorationism

6. http://www.theskepticsguide.org/logicalfallacies.asp

7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scapegoat

How I Became an Atheist

My parents were very loving, very devout, evangelical Christians. Though not overbearingly dogmatic, they were very credulous regarding the literal reading of the Bible, including the Creation narrative, and this of course, rubbed off on me, at least initially. They were not terribly well-educated, nor big on critically examining their own beliefs, but to their great credit, they were readers. There was always something to read around our house and by their example, they encouraged my siblings and I to do the same. In time, I became a voracious reader. Despite their religious convictions, they never tried to sensor what I read.

Juxtaposed to my conservative, religious upbringing, I was a bright, inquisitive kid with a profound interest in science. I was the sort of child who would lay outside at night in a sleeping bag, Dad’s binoculars, and books about the stars and just gaze in wonder for hours. I went through phases where I believed in ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFO’s, but deep down inside I was always a skeptical, critical thinker. As an example, in my teens, when I was curious about sex (i.e., contemplating having sex with my first girlfriend), I went to our copy of the World Book Encyclopedia and looked up the answers to my questions about how a woman can become pregnant and how the menstrual cycle works. While becoming sexually active at a relatively young age was probably not a great idea (ya think?), the fact that, rather than relying on my peers, or for that matter, equally ignorant adults, for (mis)information about sex, I instead sought out a credible source of information, certainly bode well for my intellectual development. Unfortunately, I lacked the requisite mathematical aptitude to study science academically, at least until I was in my early 20’s, when the “math light” finally came on for me.

I devoured books about science, but like a good little Christian boy, I assiduously avoided anything that talked about that godless “evil-ution” stuff. Past a certain point though, I could not avoid the references to evolution in my reading because evolution in general is everywhere in nature, and the idea is not limited to just Darwinian Evolution in biology and if I continued my practice of avoidance of evolution, I would run out of reading materials.

So I kept on reading science, confident that my “faith” could withstand the challenge, but over the space of several years, I became convinced that the creationist arguments and evidence were completely without merit. Not only was my faith destroyed, but I was morally outraged at the deliberate lies being told by creationists to bolster their case, the same sort of tactics used by the tobacco industry to dispute claims that smoking was harmful to one's health. Such intellectual dishonesty ran counter to what I took from the morals I brought up with. My new found skepticism was not limited to just biblical creationism as I re-examined everything I once thought I was certain of, and bit by bit my faith drained away.

Another thing that contributed to my “conversion” to atheism, again from an early age, was the realization of the extremely superficial nature of the “morality” of believers. I call this the problem one of “bumper sticker” morality. Growing up, I remember singing songs like:

“Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black or white
They are precious in His sight”

I took these words to heart and was really disturbed when the son of the pastor of our church casually referred to Native Americans as “rezzers” and African Americans as “darkies.” I distinctly remember thinking, “What happened to ‘Red and yellow, black or white, They are precious in His sight?’” This was profoundly troubling to me. Recently in a conversation with a believer, I related the above to which they replied, “If a hypocrite stands between you and God, they are closer to God than you are.” I have in fact, seen that phrase on a bumper sticker (or perhaps a coffee mug, or was it a refrigerator magnet?). I think that sort of sentiment is morally repugnant and is an attempt to evade being morally accountable for ones own hypocrisy or to avoid holding a fellow believer to account for his or her hypocrisy.

This simplistic “bumper sticker” morality is endemic to Christianity today. For some strange reason, believers seem convinced, and wish to convince others, that pithy sayings or slogans are a credible substitute for thoughtful, reasoned, and informed consideration of the deep, profound moral issues affecting our complex world. The common run of humanity would rather feel certain of what they believe than actually find out whether or not they are right and to actually reason out thorny moral dilemmas for themselves would force them to confront their own fears and uncertainties, or if you will, demons (though these are of the psychological kind, not the supernatural kind). I am not impressed, nor swayed, by such superficial morality.

Under Constuction

Finals are over May 11th, then it is off to the Bay Area to see my children, then I will transfer old posts from my Windows Live blog and create new ones.