The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2004 December

Law & Orbach

December 31, 2004 | 5 Comments

The deaths this week of Jerry Orbach and 100,000-plus tsunami victims has naturally sparked the creative energies of America’s obituary cartoonists:

Orbtsunami.jpg

At first I was horrified, but there’s an internal logic to this that’s hard to deny. To give Orbach his own cartoon would insinuate that his death was somehow more important than all the rest. I think this panel properly acknowledges his celebrity without diminishing the ongoing tragedy in Asia.

Atheist Grinch Steals the Week After Christmas

December 30, 2004 | 10 Comments

Chicago, Illinois, December 30, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

Continuing the relentless secularist attack against Christians and Christianity, a Chicago atheist has robbed the week after Christmas of its true meaning by demanding the right to participate in a publicly-funded recycling program.

The city originally wanted to bolster its Blue Bag recycling program by offering a years worth of blue bags and some mulch to anyone who turned in a used Christmas tree.

But local atheist Rob Sherman insisted the trees-for-bags exchange unfairly benefits Christians. In response, the city is now allowing anyone to get the blue bags if they bring in a large bag of recyclable material.

“The miraculous pine tree which sprouted in the Israeli desert, fully decorated with electric lights and tinsel, is Christendom’s most sacred symbol,” noted Fox talk show host Bill O’Reilly. “And after Jesus opened the Wise Mens’ presents, the tree and the wrapping paper ascended to Heaven in a sturdy polyurethane bag.”

“But now the ACLU lawyers are going to force our children to call them “holiday bags,” he said. “And the city, quite literally, will be forced to put up with all sorts of atheist and Jew garbage.”

Jay Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice, noted that “the real discrimination here is against people of faith.”

“Christians are being singled out to have their special privileges revoked,” Sekulow said. “The politically correct, multiculturalistic worldview that taxpayer-funded waste disposal services should be rationed on an indiscriminate basis is being shoved down their throats in violation of the First Amendment.”

Tsunami

December 29, 2004 | 171 Comments

Which will cause more people to re-examine their spirituality: the asian tsunami or the 9/11 attacks?

Coherent Rationales

December 29, 2004 | 63 Comments

A Vox Day reader asks (1) “are all who do not believe in the Way, the Truth and Life going to Hell?” and (2) “[i]s it not possible to be a good and decent human being and lead a good and decent life without belief in” the aforementioned W T& L? The response is slippery, even for VD:

Yes, it’s very possible. I know a few people who manage it, although I didn’t happen to be one of them. The problem is that those fundamentally good and decent people have no ability to oppose evil, lacking any coherent intellectual rationale for condemning and attacking it. So, even these good and decent unbelievers will find themselves in a Hell that is not of their making if the Christian influence is removed from a society.

If one is lucky, one might find oneself in a place like Japan. More realistically, something like the current Middle East approximates the historical norm. And if one is unlucky, one ends up in something like the People’s Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, the Aztec Empire or the Moloch-worshipping kingdoms of Canaan.

Let’s re-read the original questions, slooooooowly. The first asks whether all non-Christians — people who reject (or haven’t heard of) the convoluted salvation-by-belief-in-the-crucifixion-and–resurrection scheme — are going to Hell after they die no matter what else they believe or how they behave. It’s a simple yes-or-no question. But Vox doesn’t quite have the balls to say that decent people will suffer eternal torment just for rejecting a crazy theory. So he gets all metaphorical and starts jabbering about “a Hell that is not of their making.” Not an afterlife Hell or a Hell created by God to punish, but a Hell on Earth made by others who reject the crazy theory. Putting aside Vox’ complete evasion of the question of whether God punishes good atheists after death, how will adopting the crazy theory spare good people from earthly Hells made by others who reject it? I suppose he means that good and decent people won’t having any basis to distinguish their own behavior from that of raping, pillaging cannibals, but it seem to me that part of being good decent is being able to make such distinctions (otherwise you’d be raping and pillaging yourself). In any event, I don’t see how adopting the crazy theory aids in making moral distinctions.

The second question asks whether a person can be good and decent in this life without believing in the crazy theory. Vox fudges this one too. He doesn’t such say that such people will do bad things, only that they’ll lack a “coherent intellectual rationale” (i.e., belief in the insane, counter-intuitive crucifixion/resurrection theory) to oppose other bad people. Unless everybody’s Japanese.

Tsunami Tragedy Brings Perspective to Bin Laden

December 28, 2004 | 95 Comments

Afganistan/Pakistan, December 28, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

In his first official video since the American elections, 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden said that the recent earthquake/tsunami that claimed the lives of over 50,000 in Asia “sorta puts everything in perspective.”

“I now realize how precious human life is, even in mere multiples of three or four thousand,” Bin Laden said. “Until one is confronted by a tragedy of this scale, it’s easy to become consumed by one’s own trivial, personal geo-political problems and fail to see the larger picture.”

Bin Laden vowed that he would heretofore live his life one day at a time and enjoy each fleeting moment to the fullest. “Let’s put aside our petty religious differences and unite for the common good,” he said. “Believers and infidels of the world, unite!”

Update: On a serious note, for those of you who are interested in helping the victims through channels other than the Red Cross, Scrappleface is coordinating contributions to “an agency that is committed to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ through effective disaster relief.”

Hoax

December 28, 2004 | 46 Comments

If the Bible was just a hoax– written by a sexist, homophobic science fiction writer in 1931 and kept alive since by a mass media conspiracy — would you want to know?

God Squad Review CXIII (Homophobia)

December 27, 2004 | 7 Comments

No, the Squad didn’t decide to post a belated column this week. But I came across this letter to the editor from December 15, which will serve as my review:

Intolerance is not appreciated

It is shocking that you are running “God Squad,” a column that promotes hateful attitudes against gays. Substitute “black” for gay or lesbian and you would realize how offensive this column can be. To many Americans — gay or straight, black or white or Latino — any kind of slur against a singled-out group is divisive and un-American. That a fine newspaper like Newsday succumbs to giving voice to bigotry is deplorable. It belittles your otherwise great journalistic tradition.

Ronnie Tuft

East Hampton

Go Ronnie! Every newspaper that syndicates the Squad’s ramblings should be put on notice that its readers aren’t going to tolerate their noxious crap just because it’s tucked away in the religion section.

Whatever

December 27, 2004 | 9 Comments

The God Squad is on vacation, but this op-ed from The Telegraph is a suitably vacuous substitute. The author bemoans the declining number of Britons who profess a belief in god, without explaining why such belief would be justified or beneficial. Nor does the writer trouble himself to identify which religion is the true one or how he knows all the others are false. He does note, with seeming approval, that there’s a “lingering affection” for the Church of England, and that most people “want their monarch to defend

More Holiday Cheer

December 26, 2004 | 3 Comments

Apparently the Craiglist staff found this offensive for some reason, but fortunately Tale of Two Cities has preserved it for posterity.

A Christmas Gift

December 24, 2004 | 3 Comments

A gift to all my faithful readers . . .

christmasshoes.jpg

. . . so your momma will look good, just in case she meets Jesus tonight.


But if you’re doing some last minute shopping, try not to fall for this.

Pray for a Cure

December 24, 2004 | 7 Comments

If these polls results from the Jewish Theological Seminary are accurate, maybe you ARE better off praying than going to a doctor. Seventy-four percent of American physicians believe in miracles, and 55% believe that medical practice should be guided by religious teaching. On the bright side, however, you’ll have an 80% chance that actual medicine will be employed in your treatment if you go to a nice Jewish doctor:

Physicians differ regarding their perceptions of their control of treatment outcomes versus the influence of the supernatural or of acts of God. 35% of Catholics believe that all or a lot of the outcome of treatment is due to these non-medical sources, 46% of Protestants concur while only 20% of Jews attribute outcomes to non-medical influences.

I wonder what the results were among the Christian Scientist physicians. After all, they’re scientists, aren’t they?

O

December 22, 2004 | 39 Comments

Reader C. Schuyler e-mailed me, wondering whether you can spell “good” without “god”:

A disclaimer: I’m an unbeliever, and of all the Gods that have been proposed to me, I find the God of Christianity among the hardest to swallow.

That said, I wonder if Christianity is as vulnerable to the “Euthyphro dilemma” as you suggest. You wrote: “God’s commands are either arbitrary whims, subject to change at any time; if not, there must be a standard of morality independent of God by which his commands can be judged.” In its original form, Socrates ties his soon-to-be former friend Euthyphro up in knots with the question: do the gods love something because it is pious, or is something pious because the gods love it? I would suggest that a Christian, asked whether God loves something because it is pious, or is something pious because God loves it, could assent to both propositions simultaneously without any embarrassment, if he regards God as the sole source of good. In other words, God is the sovereign commander, AND the he is the standard of morality by which the morality of commands can be judged. As far as I can ascertain, Christians do in fact believe both propositions, and I’m hard pressed to see how they are contradictory or contrary. I conclude, therefore, that the problem of evil is much more devastating to Christian-style theism than Euthyphro.

It’s quite possible that I’ve misunderstood something, and that there’s a devastating retort to what I’ve written here. Your comments, critical or otherwise, are appreciated.

I’m a bit behind on my Solstice shopping and have to run. Can someone answer this before I start feeling merry?

Comical

December 21, 2004 | 5 Comments

An amusing “correction,” via Pharnygula (via The Talent Show):

correction.gif

As The Talent Show quipped, “I wonder if they run an item in the corrections section every time Jeffy from the Family Circus says “pasghetti” instead of

God Squad Review CXII (Jews for Christmas)

December 20, 2004 | 5 Comments

Rabbi Marc Gelman of the Squad explains this week why, as a Jew, he loves Christmas. It’s ecumenical mush masquerading as a call for True Religion:

I’ve always liked manger scenes. I even like them on public property. As long as there’s also a menorah somewhere, I love the idea of Christmas brightening what would otherwise be just the winter shopping season.

I also like greeting people I think are Christians with “Merry Christmas” and not the anemic, politically correct “Happy holidays.”

When people wish me a merry Christmas, I take it as a well-meant mistake, not a deep insult to my Jewish identity. So I wish you, my Christian brothers and sisters, a very merry Christmas.

I wish you a Christmas during which you remember what you must never forget: You are gathered together not by your common belief in Santa Claus, but by your common belief that Christmas is the birthday of your savior and redeemer, Jesus, whom you call the Christ.

Actually, the era of anemic political correctness began when people like Rabbi Gelman started insisting that there had to be a menorah next to every nativity scene. The reason people say “happy holidays” is that it’s the only greeting properly evoked by a menorah next to a cr

Hardly Questions

December 17, 2004 | 10 Comments

Rabbi Zelizer suggests in a USA Today Op-Ed that religious people start asking each other “hard questions” about faith instead of being so polite. He got the idea after some pre-adolescent Catholic kid (brought to his synagogue as part of a class trip organized by a priest) asked him why Jews don’t believe in Christ, and whether God was going to punish them for not believing in His son. Although the priest yanked the child out for a “crash course in interfaith manners,” the Rabbi thought that more could have be learned through an “uninhibited and thorough exchange” on the matter.

I’m all for unbridled rudeness in religious debates, but I doubt the Rabbi is interested in a particularly serious intellectual discussion. Indeed, his ultimate goal isn’t “to argue or convert, but to facilitate parishioners’ understanding of their religion.” Consequently, the allegedly “hard questions” he proposes that religions ask each other are in reality softballs geared toward achieving some mushy, feel-good ecumenical consensus in which everyone’s dogmas are validated and nobody’s right or wrong:

Christians to Jews: “Why don’t you accept Jesus as God?”

Jews to Christians: “How do you profess belief in ‘three Gods’ — the Father, Son and Holy Ghost — yet still hold to monotheism?”

Jews and Christians to Muslims: “What notion of God permits a seeming overload of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam?”

Muslims to Jews and Christians: “Why do you pay and take interest on loans if God tells you that interest is forbidden?”

Muslims, Jews and Christians to Buddhists: “Do you believe in God?”

In case you’re wondering, here are the pat answers he’s likely fishing for: 1. Because the Jews believe only in the Old Testament and have a their own separate covenant with God. 2. We don’t believe in three gods, but three aspects of the same God. 3. As you say, the violence is perpetrated only “in the name” of our faith by extremists who have hijacked it

Horganism

December 15, 2004 | 17 Comments

John Horgan is “keeping the faith in [his] doubt.” And “faith,” indeed, it is, of the most worthless sort. Ostensibly an attack on the “dogma” which allegedly plagues atheistic, reason-based politics, his New York Times Op-Ed is precisely that: rigid adherence to an arbitrary doctrine which is unsupported or even contradicted by experience and logic. Specifically, he advocates the notion that all beliefs are equal and that the only error is “ideological self-righteousness of any kind.” Chiding anti-religious, pro-science groups for not addressing this “basic problem,” he concludes that “we should resist the need to insist or even imply that our views — or anti-views — are better than all others . . . [i]n fact, we should all be more modest in how we talk about our faith or lack thereof.”

Logic 101 supplies a quick refutation to Horgan’s all-too-common PC doctrine: it is a fallacy because, under its own premises, to deny it is no different than to accept it. Experience 101 supplies another: the conviction or arrogance with which a view is expressed has no bearing on its truth. Doctors, faith healers, mathematicians and numerologists may be either conceited or modest, but the truth of their beliefs rests solely upon whether their patients are cured or their numbers add up. Likewise, Horgan’s smug dismissal of Sam Harris’ End of Faith as an “anti-religion polemic” hardly resolves whether, as Harris concludes, Judeo-Islamo-Christianity belongs on the same shelf with Batman.

Differences of opinion may arise among adherents of the secular scientific method, as Horgan suggests. But the answer is not to resolve them by a personality contest, or surrender to the notion that the method must be no better than rank superstition. Nevertheless, likening the perceived “sectarian squabbling” of atheists and agnostics to the “hair-splitting . . . between Baptists and Anabaptists over whether baptism should take place during infancy or adulthood,” Horgan throws up his hands and declares that the solution is the throwing up of hands. This seriously overcomplicates things. As preliminary matter, note that the very reason he likely selected the Baptist/Anabaptist example was not that it presents an area of genuine disagreement, but because the debate is so transparently stupid on both sides. There’s not a shred of evidence of an afterlife, and in any event the notion of an infinitely intelligent and good being which premises eternal life on the sprinkling of water (or makes distinctions based on the age of the sprinklee) defies any definitions of “intelligent” or “good.”

Apart from contradicting his thesis regarding the intellectual equivalency of scientific and religious thought, this concession simplifies the resolution of the atheist/agnostic dispute. If by “God” is meant anything like the Baptist (or Anabaptist) creature, the atheist side wins hands-down. To harbor even “doubts” about the existence of leprechauns or square circles is no more reasonable than to embrace them whole-heartedly. In this connection, observe that far closer empirical questions, such as whether blacks are really apes or women are just cats without fur, are generally resolved in the political sphere in the negative without the pretense that the possibility of agnostic hand-wringing delegates them to the arena of faith alone. And if you bridle at the suggestion that those questions are “far closer,” save your outrage for Mr. Horgan’s thesis that every conjecture, no matter how arbitrary or unsubstantiated or unscientific, should be immune to ideological, self-righteous rejection.

I won’t suggest that Horgan’s own “faith” has led him down a nasty, hateful path. But it is strange to see a supposedly indifferent, relativistic agnostic resurrect a canard such as this:

[R]ejection of religion and adherence to a supposedly scientific worldview do not necessarily represent our route to salvation. We should never forget that two of the most vicious regimes in history, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, were inspired by pseudoscientific ideologies, eugenics and Marxism.

Even this attempted sliming of atheists doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions: “supposedly scientific” and “psuedoscientific” aren’t quite the same as “scientific” and “scientific,” are they? They’re more like “religious” and “religious,” no? And by “religious,” I mean something like Horgan’s belief that rationality is a form of mental illness, or his apparent desire to be even stupider than he already is:

I’ve never really viewed my doubt as an asset. Quite the contrary. I often envy religious friends, because I see how their faith comforts them. Sometimes I think of my skepticism as a disorder, like being colorblind or tone-deaf. Perhaps I’m missing what one geneticist has called “the God gene,” an innate predilection for faith (although I’m skeptical of that theory, too). But skepticism has its pleasures; I like the feeling of traveling lightly through life, unencumbered by beliefs.

Anthony Flew Repudiates Neo-Kaizenism

December 14, 2004 | 15 Comments

London, England, December 14, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

Less than a week after his highly-publicized break with atheism, British professor Anthony Flew has renounced his longstanding belief in Neo-Kaizenism — a philosophy marked by the absence of belief in all non-existents.

“I cannot, consistent with my newfound belief in God, deny the existence of any non-entity,” Flew said. “My inability to formulate a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species has led me, inexorably, to an embrace of anything and everything. Bring on the fucking unicorns.”

Flew also rejected the Neo-Kazien principles of autonomy and financial independence, insisting that the nursing home staff wipe the strained carrots from his chin and wheel him to the next sing-along. Flew refused to comment, however, on whether he would terminate his house rental on the Rocha Coastline of Uruguay.

Mauled

December 14, 2004 | 44 Comments

A group of Christians in Broward County Florida are protesting against a couple of shopping malls for displaying menorahs for Hanukkah without putting up Nativity scenes for Christmas. And to make their point, the organizers are handing copies of a Bill O’Reilly column which complains that Christmas is “under siege by the growing forces of secularism in America.” Kemibe comments:

This is like watching a bunch of mentally challenged adult children, minus the hockey helmets, argue viciously about whether or not Greedo could beat up Boba Fett and expecting Toys-R-Us or Blockbuster to pony up space to host the dispute.

Broward County, incidentally, hosts the largest Jewish population in Florida. Can you believe that they’re actually exploiting their numbers to make sure the holiday decorations reflect only their views? I know that would never happen if the shoe were on the other foot.

What

December 14, 2004 | 395 Comments

Submitted by Prayer Tulip:

What if the whole answer to life IS the God of the Bible and Jesus really was sent to the world as the savior, would you want to know?

God Squad Review CXII (Meaning of Hanukkah)

December 13, 2004 | 2 Comments

The Squad has decided to switch roles for the holiday season, with Father Tom presenting the Hanukkah greeting this week. He sets out to prove, contrary to his Rabbi pal’s opinion, that the Festival of Lights is not a just minor Jewish holiday leaching off the merchandising orgy of Christmas. So keep in mind that when he says “the smallest package contains the greatest gift,” he’s talking about Hanukkah, not a midget with syphilis. If there’s a difference:

Hanukkah also celebrates the courage of a single Jewish family. When the Maccabees stood up against the forces of assimilation and oppression in the year 168 BCE, Judaism was almost dead. Many Jews had left Judaism for Greek culture, and some had been exiled and killed as slaves.

Almost alone, the Maccabees began the revolt that rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem and saved Judaism for later generations. Less than two centuries after the Maccabean Revolt, my faith and my Messiah, Jesus Christ, emerged from his Jewish roots and began a new path up the mountain to God. Some 800 years after the Maccabean Revolt, Mohammad emerged from his Jewish and Christian roots and forged yet another path to Allah/God.

Were it not for the Maccabees — were it not for that first Hanukkah — none of that subsequent history of faith that changed the world might have happened in the same way.

Ah — so Judaism’s chief contribution to the world was setting the stage for (1) a mutually exclusive faith system that has dedicated itself for 2,000 to eliminating Judaism through murder and conversion and (2) a second mutually exclusive religion intent on finishing the job soon through murder alone. Quite frankly, I would have opted for Greek culture, even if I had to give up all the fun with the magic everlasting candles.

I’m afraid Father Tom’s analysis doesn’t speak very well for God. He implies that if the Jews had died out, The Omnipotent One would have been thwarted in his resurrection quest. No Jewish woman to impregnate, no Jewish boy to be your son/yourself. No angry mob of Jews to call for your blood. Indeed, the very “history of faith that changed the world” wouldn’t have happened in the same way — it would have be, err, uh — different!

Read Between the Lines

December 11, 2004 | 28 Comments

Maybe the whole Anthony Flew conversion thing has taken the wind out of my sails, but my heart is softening towards religion. So I think that maybe Andrea of Read Between the Lines has the right idea:

Lately I’ve been thinking about the proper way to introduce children to religion, and the fundamentals behind those religions. I’m not religious so I don’t want to raise my kids to believe in any supernatural powers/beings. I also think it’s a bit pretentious to raise your kids according to your beliefs. So I’ll start on a clean slate, and if they want to practice a faith, they have my blessings. Because if religion is supposed to be from the heart, how can you force it upon someone?

This may be harsh, but if a religion doesn’t survive, that is because not enough people believe in it, and I’m not so sure that it’s a bad thing. I, for one, refuse to perpetuate a religion that does not have my support, nor will I bring my children into such a sensitive arena. I refuse to believe that I am doing a disservice to Judiasm by not raising my kids as Jews.

The Jews of the world should not want my children to be a part of their religion unless they come to this on their own. Showing children one way of thinking is perfectly fine, but you must be sensitive to the fact that kids are young and impressionable . . . I’d hate to think that Chrisitianity, the world’s largest religion, is supported by blind followers. I mean, wouldn’t choosing my kids’ religion be the true disservice? As a parent I will enforce values in my own way – no religion needed, thanks.

I have only the highest respect for the faithful and the religions they practice. So I cannot imagine why a true Christian, for example, would want his or her religion to survive on people who don’t have their hearts in it, or have been pushed to believe in something. It’s too superficial for me. My father’s side of the family is quite religious and not pleased with my atheist views. On the High Holy Days, they beg me to attend services… why would they want me there? Wouldn’t it be downright insulting to their religion if I participated in services, knowing that it means absolutely nothing to me?

I sincerely believe that Andrea’s proposal is something that both the most militant atheists and most fundamentalist religionists can heartily embrace. Let kids grow up first and then figure it out for themselves. The obvious, inescapable truth of the correct religion — whichever it is — will make itself known to one and all.

Atheist Faces Difficult Choice of Title for Christmas Video

December 10, 2004 | 234 Comments

New York, New York, December 9, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

Releasing a new video in time for the Christmas season, atheist Anthony Flew found himself confronted with a difficult choice: what name would best attract the intellectual, secular holiday shopper?

“My original title was

Away He Flew

December 9, 2004 | 6 Comments

On second thought, just forget about my earlier post

But I’m not closing down my blog until they snag Michael Martin.

Leaving Atheism

December 9, 2004 | 126 Comments

I’ve long been on a quest to find a case of a true conversion of a “committed atheist” to Christianity. Not just some lapsed Catholic “rejecting” God for a couple of weeks because of “doubts,” but a hardcore, proselytizing skeptic familiar with the major theological arguments on both sides. So I experienced a flicker of hope when I began reading Why I Left Atheism by John N. Clayton:

Most of the time when I speak to religious groups or to people who believe in God, someone will ask me somewhat incredulously, “Well, were you really an atheist? Did you really not believe in God?” I want to start by asserting that the answer to that question is a very affirmative “Yes.” At one time in my life, I was totally and firmly convicted that there was no such thing as God and that anybody who believed in God was silly, superstitious, ignorant and had simply not looked at the evidence. I felt that believers in God were uneducated and were just following traditions, superstitions and things that really made no sense to a person who was aware of what was going on around him.

Finally! As everyone knows, all atheists deep down desperately want to believe in God, but are stopped by what seem to be impenetrable intellectual roadblocks. Has Mr. Clayton, — who “had always felt that science could ultimately answer all the questions that man had” –found a way around them?

You may wonder how it would be possible for a person coming out of this type of background and kind of learning situation to come to be a strong believer in God today, devoting his life to trying to help people to understand that there is a God . . .

::Feigning orgasm like that woman in the restaurant in the shampoo commercial:: YES! YES! YES! I DO!! But how . . . ? Tell us, tell us . . .

I read the Bible through from cover to cover four times during my sophomore year in college for the explicit purpose of finding scientific contradictions in it. By that, I mean statements in the Bible that were false that I could throw back at her to show [my Christian girlfriend] how ridiculous it was to believe in God. I had even decided to write a book called All the Stupidity of the Bible. Something amazing happened as I did this. As I considered and thought about these things, I found that I could not find a contradiction. I tried that whole year and years after to find a contradiction–to find some kind of scientific inaccuracy in the Bible. I just simply was not able to do it. I gave up writing the book because of a lack of material!

Just you don’t think he came to this conclusion lightly, be aware that he visited nearly every religious organization in southern Indiana before making the switch. And after studying the matter carefully, I too have come to conclude that there’s not a single contradiction in the Bible. Atheists of the world, convert!

Interview with Sam Harris (Part 5)(With Postscript)

December 8, 2004 | 8 Comments

Atheist blogger Under No Circumstances concludes the questioning of End of
Faith author Sam Harris (Parts 1 through 4 can be found here, here, here and here). I’ll be posting a post-interview wrap-up of my thoughts in the next week or so.


UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES: The technique of bio-feedback is currently used to help humans learn to consciously control their own brain patterns or physiological states, and could have great potential for use in training humans to induce meditative brain chemistry or electrical activity. How would you say that would compare to more traditional methods of teaching meditation? Would the attention to raw, neurological data detract from the consciousness- dependent “mental” activity, or would it merely be another way of learning the necessary discipline and focus? Is experiencing the ultimate meditative state the goal in and of itself, or is it essential to use a specific process for arriving at that state?

HARRIS: EEG-based biofeedback (also called “neurofeedback”) is still pretty primitive. The problem is that the electrical signal at the scalp is extremely noisy and rather nonspecific as to underlying brain states. I’ve experimented with this technology a little and never found that modulating the canonical waveforms (like alpha or theta) correlated with important changes in my mental state. This is not to say that mechanical methods of entraining meditation are not possible; it’s just that the technology is not there yet. In principle, however, I think it should be possible to build a machine that would be extremely helpful for the cultivation of positive mental states and meditative insights.

Postscript by Sam Harris

Dear Atheist Friends —

Before signing off, I would like to clear a up a few points of confusion and
controversy:

1. My remarks about the mysteriousness of consciousness (i.e. the fact that we don’t know the relationship between consciousness and the physical world) were intended to convey the state of our scientific ignorance on this subject (as well as to hint at some of its conceptual difficulties). I was not suggesting that we have good reasons to believe that consciousness floats free of the brain at the moment of death. Nor was I suggesting that one need believe anything spooky about consciousness in order to meditate. Many diehard philosophical materialists have derived great benefit from meditation. Most atheists appear to be certain that consciousness dies with the brain. Given the state of the science, this is a false certainty. To my mind, the only intellectually rigorous position to stake out here is to say that we don’t know what happens to consciousness after death. Once again, I am not suggesting that one make a religion out of this uncertainty, or do anything else with it. It is just over-reaching to say that we know that consciousness arises from neuronal complexity (or anything else). It is not, however, over-reaching to say that the faculties of mind (language processing, proprioception, etc.) arise in this way or that most religious beliefs are preposterous (they are).

2. My comments about spiritual teachers, retreats, and the difficulties of learning to meditate were not meant to minimize the dangers of cults. Cults are scary. Mainstream religions are nothing more than cults by another name (and with millions of members). I consider the problem of cultic irrationality to be the central problem of our time. Reason is the antidote, but it is difficult to apply in sufficient quantities.

3. The purpose of this interview was to clear up some of the concerns that atheists have raised about the last chapter of my book. Consequently, we focused on the esoterica of meditation, spirituality, consciousness, etc. Those of you who have not read my book are likely to get a distorted picture of its contents from this interview, as The End of Faith has very little to say about the mystery of consciousness or the usefulness of meditation. Most of its pages are dedicated to exposing the noxious absurdity of religious faith. It is, therefore, ironic that some of the harshest criticism of my book has come from atheists who felt that I had betrayed their cause on some peripheral issues. If there is a book that takes a harder swing at religion, I’m not aware of it. This is not to say that my book does not have many shortcomings — but appeasing religious irrationality is not among them.

It was a pleasure to be in dialogue with the Raving Atheist, Brian Flemming, and
Under No Circumstances. Given the level of religious idiocy in this world, there is no shortage of things for us all to make noise about. Keep it up, my friends.

I wish you all the best.

Sam

What Percent Believe in Math?

December 7, 2004 | 9 Comments

Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe in the literal truth of the proposition that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without a human father, reports Newsweek. However, according to the very same poll, “[t]wenty-four percent of Americans believe the story of Christmas is a theological invention written to affirm faith in Jesus Christ” (emphasis supplied). This would indicate, at the very least, that three percent of those who believe that in the literal truth of the Virgin birth also think it was an invention.

Which means that at least three percent of Americans don’t know the difference between a “literal truth” and an “invention.” On second thought, make that seventy-nine percent.

Eternal Queasiness for Laci, Mom Testifies

December 7, 2004 | 12 Comments

Modesto, California, December 7, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

Testifying at the penalty phase of Scott Peterson’s murder trial, Laci Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, declared that her daughter is now in a permanent state of sea-sickness.

“She got motion sickness, you knew that,” Rocha said, referring to how Peterson dumped his wife’s body from a boat in San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002. “You knew she’d be sick for all eternity, and you did that to her anyway.”

Laci’s headless, limbless corpse washed ashore last year during the Easter holidays, together with the remains of a full-term fetus with its umbilical cord still attached. At the time, Rocha stated that “God [was] watching over them . . . He sent them back to us on Good Friday.” God soon advised her, however, that he could not make an exception to his “perpetually reliving the moment of death” rule.

“Only celebrities get to go back in time and participate in the activities that they were most famous for,” God said. “But the record-keeping would become impossible if I had to figure that out for everybody and restore their body to the appropriate state.” God added that “it’s so much easier for me to just take a snapshot at the end and go by that.”

Given her bodily condition, application of the rule is particularly harsh in Laci’s case. “The vomit spurts out of the ragged, severed end of her esophagus like a geyser,” Rocha noted. “And then miles away her head moans, likely from inside an undiscovered duffel bag in a Greyhound bus station locker.”

If Peterson receives the death penalty, he will be executed by means of lethal injection. “Believe me, he will not be spared,” said God. “Once the chemicals take effect, he will be suspended eternally in a state of contented drowsiness, contemplating forever the taste of his last meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and mint ice cream.”

[Link via Gracie McDaniels]

Playing

December 6, 2004 | 4 Comments

Won’t Andy ever learn to stop playing with his food?

God Squad Review CXI (Red States vs. Blue)

December 6, 2004 | 30 Comments

“I pray that God saves us from George W. Bush and every organized religion . . . [y]ou hypocrites disgust me,” writes a reader. In response, the Squad concedes that “[m]ore than wealth or social status, views on religion seem to divide us into blue states and red states.” In an imaginary dialogue between “Mr. Red” and “Mr. Blue,” they identify four issues — school prayer, abortion, gay marriage and dirty television — which presumably separate the religious from the godless. As an alternative to “invective and slander,” that propose that red and blue staters engage in “actual conversation” on them. Notably, the proposed dialogue never touches on the prayer issue, but it does contain this gem from Mr. Blue:

Dear Mr. Red,

OK, I’m sorry. I see some things now that I did not see before. I was so concerned about removing prejudice against gays and others that I failed to see that I was promoting prejudice against people who take their faith seriously. I never complained back in the 1960s when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used his religious beliefs to argue for a change in our nation’s laws to end discrimination.

I understand now that it is hypocritical for me to complain when people of faith again argue for a change in our laws just because I disagree with the changes they seek in the laws governing abortion.

I will continue to disagree with you, but I will discuss your reasons and not disparage the faith that brought you to those conclusions.

It’s not promoting prejudice to call Christians who “take their faith seriously” homophobes, if, in fact, the beliefs they take seriously call for discrimination against gays. There’s no “prejudging” in that whatsoever –it’s simply reviewing the actual content of the faith and judging it for what it is — groundless bigotry. It’s perfectly acceptable to promote hatred against people who argue that the skygod babytalk contained in the books of Leviticus and Romans provide sufficient grounds to strip people of their freedom and civil rights. You can’t use your religion as a sword to cut people down, and then, simultaneously, as a shield to immunize yourself against legitimate criticism.

Labeling people immoral, lazy stupid or dangerous merely because of the color of their skin — that’s prejudice. And that was the kind of prejudice Dr. King was fighting. It’s insulting for the Squad to suggest that opposition to homophobic Christianity is morally equivalent to opposition to racial discrimination. Mr. Blue didn’t complain about Dr. King because Dr. King wasn’t proposing that some god forbade interracial marriage or demanded that blacks be lynched for sitting at public lunch counters. And missing from the Squad’s analysis is precisely who Dr. was fighting against. Those deep south segregationists weren’t a bunch of atheists — they were Sunday-school teaching Ku Klux Klanners who took their faith far, far, more seriously than King ever did.

It would, of course, be hypocritical to criticize faith-based racists if one’s only ground for supporting Dr. King was his stupid Jesus talk. Which is precisely the problem with religion — it removes discourse on public policy from the realm of reason and evidence, and reduces the debate to one over the alleged desires of imaginary beings. The Squad’s suggestion that we focus on “reasons” without disparaging the “faith” that brings people to their conclusions is pure double-talk. If faith leads one to a conclusion, then it is the reason for the conclusion. And if it’s the only reason, it’s a non-reason and should be disparaged.

This analysis applies to the debate over abortion as well. As I have repeatedly argued, the religious case against abortion (and the taking of human life generally) is weak in view of the alleged eternality of the soul and God’s unlimited powers of resurrection, and practically non-existent to the extent it is based on the infanticide-friendly Bible. There are better reasons against the practice than those advanced by its religious proponents,* and there is nothing hypocritical about disparaging the faith-based objections while simultaneously promoting the secular ones.

*Zrokewl, Swill, Debbie

Truth Haters

December 3, 2004 | 8 Comments

Unrepentant, Kerry Haters refuses to retract or clarify its post promoting the “New School Prayer Post.” Let’s review the record.

Kerry Haters introduces the “Prayer” as follows:

Since the Pledge of Allegiance and The Lord’s Prayer are not allowed in most public schools anymore because the word “God” is mentioned . . . a kid in Arizona wrote the following NEW School prayer.

This preface makes at least two unambiguous factual assertions. First, that it is a “new” prayer — and by virtue of the reference to the Pledge of Allegiance ban, plainly written sometime after June 2002 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge was unconstitutional. Second, that the poem was written by “a kid in Arizona.” (I’ll put aside the fact that the Ninth Circuit’s decision was reversed this year, as well as all the false assertions made by the prayer itself).

Both assertions are almost certainly false. As noted by Snopes.com, versions of the poem have been circulating since as early as 1985. The precise version reproduced by Kerry Haters was available all over the internet in 1999. So it is not “new,” and obviously was not written in response to the Pledge decision as KH indicates. It’s somewhere between five and twenty years old.

It also was most likely not written by a kid in Arizona. Versions appearing in 1992 and 1993 merely referred to an “anonymous student,” and it has also been attributed to a “12 year old girl in Boston.” The claim that it was written by an Arizonian teen was only first made in the year 2000, often accompanied by the assertion that it “was posted on the Bagdad [Arizona] Public Bulletin board on 1/28/00. There’s no evidence that such a bulletin board exists, but if it does, the teen who allegedly posted it there in 2000 could not have been the author.

When I pointed these facts out in the comments to KH, the only response I got was that it was that the origin of the prayer was “undetermined.” But that’s hardly a justification for making a specific claim that it was new poem by a kid in Arizona, particularly when you name no source for your information whatsoever. At the very least, a footnote indicating the substantial questions regarding the authorship should be provided to let the readers decide for themselves.

I am pushing this relatively minor issue regarding attribution only because of the subject matter of the prayer itself. The poem has been widely circulated as an expression of outrage that the Bible cannot be read the public schools. And yet the people who are trying to promote the millennia-old Bible as the authentic, inerrant word of God cannot be bothered to authentic a simple poem written within the last quarter-century.

Anatomy of a Blog God-Debate

December 3, 2004 | 20 Comments

Inter-blog debates about God are microcosms of real-world religious conflicts, the sort which will precipitate a nuclear holocaust in a decade or so. Herewith, then, a post-mortem of a recent battle between atheist blogger Andy of Worldwide Rant and Christian blogger Bill of Industrial Blog. As you’ll see, nobody’s really right or wrong. A comforting thought when everything goes boom-boom.

Round 1: Atheist Criticizes Viciously Homophobic Church

Andy writes post suggesting that the Westboro Baptist Church might view a news story about a promising HIV vaccine as evidence of Satan’s existence. The wisdom of the Westboro Baptist Church can be accessed at GodHatesFags.com. Among other things, WBC has a graphic (with audio) of the murdered Matthew Shepard burning and screaming in hell, as well as a page depicting a “[m]onument dedicated to Matthew Shepard’s Entry Into Hell, which WBC intends to erect in Casper City Park as a solemn Memorial that God Hates Fags & Fag-Enablers.”

Round 2: Christian Leaves Comment Accusing Atheist of Religion-Bashing

In the comments section of the WBC post, Bill asks “What the hell does any of this have to do with a debate about God . . . God could heal through science, you know . . . [s]ome of you are just as bad as the folks you complain[] about.” (Note that Andy’s original post was about Christians who might credit Satan for medical advances potentially helpful to gays, not about Christians who credit God for working through doctors).

Round 3: Atheist Explains Justification for Religious Criticism

Andy explains how the WBC’s position that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality brings the matter into the realm of religious debate. Andy also addresses Bill’s additional concerns about the Almighty’s involvement with medical practice, noting that “centuries of senseless pain and misery” relieved only by the odd cure here and there militate against the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God.

Round 3: Christian Notes that Limited Humans Can’t Understand God

Employing a transcript of a mock telephone conversation with God, Bill has God explain how Andy’s limited temporal and spatial dimensions (and his inability to build a whale or a fish) preclude him from knowing how an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God would act. Nevertheless, Bill then proceeds to opine that God doesn’t dislike homosexuals, based on his understanding of how the New Testament overruled some parts of the Old Testament (apparently preserving the prohibition against incest). Bill refuses to discussion homosexuality further, however, stating that “I’m really, really, really sick of the subject. Like most of us.”

Round 4: Atheist Responds that If Limited Humans Can’t Understand God, They Can’t Make All Sort of Assertions about His Powers and Desires

Andy points out that Bill’s temporal/spatial limitations are identical to Andy’s, thus disentitling him from claiming any better understanding of the nature and will of an infinite being. Andy further notes that if Bill’s theory is accepted, then at least for some period of time “killing homosexuals, adulterers, and back-talking children was a moral thing to do because God said so.”

Round 5: Christian Says It’s All A Mystery

Bill denies asserting that he knows anything about God, or that Andy doesn’t. Bill claims that all he meant was that if there is an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God, its actions over a limited period of time “might appear to be a mystery to all of us.” As to Bible-sanctioned stoning of gays, etc., Bill suggests that those who are without sin may engage in such activities.

Round 6: Atheist Notes that It’s Impossible to Make Any Moral Judgments under Christian “Mystery” Theory

Andy observes that (1) “to say that something is good in a way that we cannot yet see does not absolve God of the fact that he allowed suffering to exist in the first place” and (2) if “humans are incapable of divining good from evil in the world, that – since any event is simply part of the long-term plan of Jesus’ papa – it makes no sense to be happy or sad about any of it, to say that anything or anyone is good or evil, to make any sort of value judgment at all, ever.”

Round 7: Christian Proposes that Water-Dunking is the Answer

Bill promulgates First Principles, including (1) “[i]”If God doesn’t exist, then the Christian scriptures shouldn’t resonate deep within my heart” and (2) “[i]f God doesn’t exist, then prayer should just be wishful thinking.”
Bill then suggests the answer is just accepting the mysteries and getting wet:

[T]he scriptures require baptism in the Holy Spirit (or the teaching of the church) to be understood because the carnal mind will find what’s written in the Bible to be upsetting, contradictory, annoying or boring. Like the Leviticus passages.

Round 8: Atheist Feels Intellectually Abused

Andy (among other things): “why the hell did [he] just spend half-an-hour and two beers debating with me on the rational merits of [his] belief?”

Kerry Hoaxers

December 2, 2004 | 6 Comments

Kerry Haters is trying to jump start the chain e-mail about the “New School Prayer” allegedly written by “a kid in Arizona.” Having posted on that hoax last year, I left a polite comment at KH suggesting a correction.

I’m sure we’ll see immediate results.

Child Molesters

December 2, 2004 | 25 Comments

Dean Esmay feigns horror that some older 50-ish man told his “poor fragile 7 year old son” the Noah’s Ark creation story and asks his “secular humanist friends” for advice:

Can anyone give me any references or suggestions as to what I might do about the horrendous trauma inflicted upon my 7 year old boy? He was obviously traumatized by an IDEA that is QUESTIONED BY EVERYDAY SCIENTISTS. It’s practically mind-rape, it is. What am I, as a responsible parent, supposed to do about this?

He was EXPOSED to an IDEA that is questioned by most biologists! What am I to do? What what what??!?!?!? HE HEARD A SCIENTIFICALLY DUBIOUS IDEA!!! AAAAAAAAAAH!!!! I AM SO FRIGHTENED AS A PARENT! WHAT SHOULD I DO?!?!??!?!?!??!?!?!

Secular humanists aren’t all that concerned about children being exposed to silly superstitious ideas in chance encounters with strangers. Even if it’s Dean himself accosting children in parks to share his pet theories that the state has an absolute right to impose God’s will by imprisoning gays or that black people are annoying. The cure to speech presented in that sort of forum is just more speech.

In reality, it’s the religious people who do most of the hand-wringing when their children are exposed in the public arena to ideas they consider offensive, or when they’re denied the right to use the machinery of the state to proselytize. But call them on their theologically-based irrationality or prejudice, in any forum, and you’ll quickly find yourself called an “anti-Christian bigot” for your troubles. Dean has made a career out of protecting their delicate sensibilities from the trauma of being exposed to legitimate criticism.

What secular humanists do object to is the religious indoctrination of children in the public schools. In his next post on the topic, Dean pretends it’s just about “discussing the concept of a creative force in the universe in the classroom.” No, Dean; actually, it’s about making the kids pray to Jesus during assemblies or having that 50-something nutjob teach that the Noah’s Ark fairy tale is scientific fact. That’s what makes the secular humanists squeal — almost as loud as the God folk do when they don’t get their way.

Interview with Sam Harris (Part 4)

December 1, 2004 | 13 Comments

Atheist bloggers Brian Flemming and Under No Circumstances continue the questioning of End of Faith author Sam Harris on the merits of meditational mysticism. Parts 1, 2 and 3 can be found respectively here, here and here.


BRIAN FLEMMING: But Tiger Woods can demonstrate his skill for me without my joining his cult. I can see what he’s good at. No leap of faith is required before I become a fan. And I can understand and appreciate Feynman’s work without making myself vulnerable to his cult in any way. Meditation seems unique to me in that in order to understand its benefits, one has to turn over one’s mind to it, generally under the guidance of an authority. “What I have to sell you is wonderful, but you have to buy it to know why,” is a very familiar pitch.

HARRIS: Granted the skill of meditation is not as demonstrable as hitting a golf ball. But there are certainly signs of expertise. The people who I’ve met who have been considered masters of meditation — mostly old, Tibetan lamas who have spent 10 or 20 years on retreat — have been extraordinary people. Had they been ordinary neurotics, I can assure you that no one would have been interested in what they had to say about the nature of human happiness. Neuroimaging studies on accomplished meditators has also revealed clear, reproducible, and functionally significant changes in neural activity, especially in the frontal lobes. (See, in particular, the work of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin.)

But that said, your fear of buying a pig in a poke does not seem warranted to me. Most things that are worth looking into in a deep way, require some considerable commitment of time an energy. “What I have to sell you is wonderful, but you have to buy it to know why,” is also true of physics — in the sense that a person has to make a massive down-payment of effort in order to equip himself with theconceptual tools to even know what physicists are talking about. In fact, physics is even less egalitarian than that. The true pitch from theoretical physics is: “What I have to sell you is wonderful, but it would take you years to understand it, provided that you are smart enough. And you probably aren’t smart enough.” Starting from zero, an ordinary person could spend the rest of his life trying to find out if string-theory makes any sense. Needless to say, his failure to do so would say nothing at all about the merits of string-theory.

With meditation, however, you can get your foot in the door far more easily. Almost any person who sits a week-long meditation retreat, with the proper guidance, will get a taste of what is being talked about, and then will be in a position to judge for himself whether there is a “there” there. I share your concern about cults, but cults are the extreme case of spiritual discourse gone awry. Judging the merits of meditation on the basis of cults is like judging the scientific method merely by looking at examples of scientific misconduct.

The only faith required here is the faith of scientific hypothesis. The hypothesis is this: if I use my attention in a certain way, it will have a specific, reproducible effect. Needless to say, what happens (or fails to happen) must be interpreted in light of some rational scheme, and everything is open to argument. But there is really no basis for a swindle. If there is no pay off in a reasonable period of time, a person can simply move on to another project — like golf.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES: In recent years, several experimental studies have been designed to test whether artificial elevation of activity in certain brain regions can generate spiritual experiences. Virtually all such studies have found this to be possible, though with varying results depending on the method of stimulation and the regions selected. Though these studies are obviously still only scratching the surface, it is easy to see the profound implications they could have for meditation and prayer (as well as spirituality in general) and the consciousness/brain relationship. If it were possible to artificially induce brain conditions identical to those achieved through normal meditation, would you expect the meditative experience to differ? In other words, if the physical brain is made to precisely imitate the natural meditative state, would there still be some extra-neurological component missing?

HARRIS: I do not doubt that the contents of consciousness are entirely dependent on states of the brain. Which is to say that if one could artificially impose the right brain state on a person, there is every reason to expect that he would have the right mental state as well. Of course, the results of such an experiment would say little about the relationship between consciousness itself and the brain. In fact, results of this sort would even be compatible with certain forms of dualism. If brains are just receivers of consciousness, one might still expect changes in the contents of consciousness to supervene upon changes in neural activity. But such an idea requires that one distinguish between consciousness and its contents, which is a move that many philosophers and scientists find suspect. In any case, I think we should be very interested in the possibility of inducing normative states of the brain. But it’s not going to happen any time soon.

Next Week’s Question:

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES: The technique of bio-feedback is currently used to help humans learn to consciously control their own brain patterns or physiological states, and could have great potential for use in training humans to induce meditative brain chemistry or electrical activity. How would you say that would compare to more traditional methods of teaching meditation? Would the attention to raw, neurological data detract from the consciousness- dependent “mental” activity, or would it merely be another way of learning the necessary discipline and focus? Is experiencing the ultimate meditative state the goal in and of itself, or is it essential to use a specific process for arriving at that state?

[Interview continued here]

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