The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2006 April

Good Day!

April 28, 2006 | 27 Comments

Reader James Jacobsen writes:

I think you’re talking your way into intellectual suicide. To ignore the obvious and rant on about everything under the sun and deny the simple understanding of Salvation Through Christ is ludicrous. You can’t know everything and the most arrogant atheist of my lifetime, Prof. Anthony Flew, finally has humbled himself. Jesus said, “no one can come to the Father except through me.” Believe or not is your choice, but He did not leave you an option. Jesus said, “I am the way, truth and light.” Simply put, your way is a path of deception and conceit. Dawkins said Christians fear death. Nonsense! We love LIFE! Eternal life is offered if you humble yourself and receive Christ as your Savior. That simple. I don’t mean to offend you, but I can’t stand to see ranting atheist propaganda distort the simple Gospel about the Lord. The gospel is simple. Jesus will save YOU from your sins. But you must admit you are a sinner and need a Saviour. Science? Try me. I love science as long as it’s good science. Not dogmatic opium from the neo-darwinist. I know where atheist thought is contrived from. The self-righteous mind. I know, I was one. ……….No need to email me back. Unless you concede that what Christ offers is hope beyond the grave. Hope so. Good day……..

I deeply admire Mr. Jacobsen’s argumentative strategy. He (1) clearly states his thesis, (2) supports it with direct quotes from a primary authority, (3) points out the errors and/or capitulation of other authorities, (4) addresses the relevant scientific arguments, (5) demonstrates that he knows where we’re coming from, (6) conditions further discussion on a simple concession, and (7) ends on a civil note. If only more atheists would emulate his calm, methodical style.

CPCs and JFJs

April 27, 2006 | 20 Comments

Women sometimes “choose” not to have an abortion after talking to a crisis pregnancy clinic volunteer — but we all know that’s not really a “choice” because no woman would voluntarily forgo her right to a constitutionally-guaranteed procedure unless brainwashed into magical thinking. So last month Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney proposed a bill to combat the epidemic of deceptively-procured non-feticides. The measure would prohibit any organization from advertising “abortion services” if it did not actually offer “surgical [or] non-surgical procedures to terminate a pregnancy.” Termination by means other than by birth, presumably.

Rep. Maloney couldn’t round up any of the countless victims of CPC trickery for her press conference announcing the legislation. Apparently the ones who escaped with their lives were all busy at home abusing their unwanted, crib-bound future felons. That, or all the NARAL volunteers who had their sensibilities offended while pretending to be pregnant in prank phone calls to CPCS were in the middle of midterms. However, Maloney’s website did boast the support of the ACLU, whose Washington legislative director declared that “[w]omen deserve truthful, accurate information about their reproductive health care choices.” As opposed to sonograms, which NARAL considers “weapons” of mass confusion.

Maloney’s site still boasts the ACLU’s backing. At this point, however, that information may be a little untruthful and inaccurate. The endorsement apparently wasn’t vetted by the organization’s full board, and looks to have been withdrawn after an outcry by civil libertarians. Of particular note were the comments of the “very strongly pro-choice” ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer:

I think this is precisely the kind of legislation we should be opposing, not supporting. I am troubled by the assumption in the legislation that abortion services, as a matter of linguistics and a matter of law, cannot include discussing with a woman why she shouldn’t have an abortion. I don’t believe the pro-choice movement has the copyright on the term ‘abortion services.’ That seems to me a very clear example of government being the language police.

Heartening to an anti-choice crazy like me, yes, but I began wondering whether there was some sort of trick involved. Do the emanations from the penumbras of the First Amendment really stretch so far as to allow anyone one but Haven volunteers to talk to pregnant women? Fortunately, another ACLU board member, John Brittain, opposed the bill with the clear-headedness I’ve come to expect from pro-choice advocates:

Mr. Brittain said that one board member warned that a ban on deceptive advertising outside the realm of commerce could even affect groups such as Jews for Jesus, which seem Jewish at first glance but are actually Christian. “I could see a free speech principle even in the utmost deception,” said the lawyer.

In other words, convincing a woman that a fetus is a life worth saving, as opposed to a worthless clump of cells, is the “utmost deception.” It’s exactly like the JFJ’s lies about the Jewishness of Jesus, as contrasted with the rock-solid (but conflicting) truths of Judaism and/or Christianity. Magical, but Constitutionally-protected speech.

Devout

April 26, 2006 | 37 Comments

UPDATE: The interview may now be viewed at One Good Move (via Brian Flemming).

[NOTE: The interview reproduced below is much funnier if you can actually see and hear Colbert’s delivery. The show should be rebroadcast tonight at 8:30 p.m. [EST]; check the schedule for local listings].

Atheist “End of Faith” author Sam Harris played an engaging straight man to comedian Steven Colbert’s faux-Bill O’Reilly yesterday on the Colbert Report. Now, Colbert’s own atheism makes Madalyn Murray O’Hair look like a Jehovah’s Witness, but journalists who don’t quite get his act frequently take at face value his claim to be a “devout Catholic” — usually to make some point about his depth or intellectualism. Last night’s interview left no doubt about where he stands, although I don’t doubt that many will interpret his ability to mock his alleged faith as further evidence of the strength of his convictions:

Colbert: My guest tonight is the atheist author of the book “The End of Faith.” Tonight I’ll ask “If there is no Jesus, who carried me on that beach?” Please welcome Mr. Sam Harris!

Colbert: Mr. Harris, thank you for coming.

Harris: Nice to meet you, Steven.

Colbert: That’s faith right there [referring to audience’s applause for Colbert]. The End of Faith, huh? Evidence to the contrary, my friend.

Now, you do not believe in God, correct?

Harris: That’s true, that’s true . . .

Colbert: O.K., so . . .

Harris: . . . but I would point out that none of us believe in Poseidon. We’re all atheists with respect to Poseidon. And, uh . . .

Colbert: [Sneeringly]. He’s a . . . he’s Pagan God.

Harris: That’s true, that’s true, but we . . .

Colbert: It doesn’t make any sense, we’re not talking about a Pagan god, we’re talking about Jesus Christ, the only son of God.

Harris: But we all know exactly . . . we all know exactly what it’s like to be an atheist with respect to Poseidon. Anyone worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, is a lunatic. And we all feel this deeply, and every Christian knows what it’s like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims.

Colbert: No no no . . . I know what it’s like to be a Christian in respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Okay, it’s not inherent, you know, in my belief that you’re crazy, it’s inherent in my belief that you’re wrong.

Harris: Right, right.

Colbert: Okay. That God could even exist, he could just be a false god, that my god will smite.

Harris: Right, right.

Colbert: I’m not saying Poseidon’s not there, for all I know he’s down with the big green beard at the bottom of the sea with his little trident, you know, finding Nemo, but . . . I’m saying my god’s a greater god, that’s all I’m saying. My God can kick your god’s ass.

Harris: Well, I don’t have a god . . .

Colbert: . . . or your lack of a god.

Harris: Yes. If you’re right, I’m in terrible straits.

Colbert: Yeah. Speaking of which, do you think when you die you will go to a lake of fire, a lake of frost, or will you merely be alone in the knowledge that you denied God, and are now denied His love?

Harris: Uh, it’s a difficult question. What I’m worried about is this life, really, and I think we all should be worried about this. Our world has been shattered by competing religious certainties. We have Christians against Muslims against Jews, we have literally, most of the people on this planet organized around the idea that God wrote one of their holy books.

Colbert: Right.

Harris: These books make incompatible claims about how we should live, and this is leading unnecessarily to violence. And because of the respect we accord religious faith, we’re not talking about it. And that’s really . . .

Colbert: No, I’ll talk about it, I’ll talk about it.

Harris: Well. . .

Colbert: We got to kick a little ass, is what I’ll say about it. I mean, he didn’t write all three books, he wrote one book.

Harris: You know . . . 83%, we’re living in a country where 83% of the people agree with you. They think Jesus literally rose from the dead.

Colbert: We’ll get it to 100.

Harris: But, well, we might well.

Colbert: We will. We’ll get it there. It’s a Christian nation, sir, founded by Christians . . .

Harris: It’s a scary situation . . .

Colbert: In God we trust. Do you trust in God?

Harris: I trust in conversation. And the problem I find . . .

Colbert: Do you spend money? Do you spend money, Sir?

Harris: I do.

Colbert: It says “In God We Trust.” If you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t spend money. I’d go back to a barter system, I believe that you’re living a lie.

Harris: Well, if there’s a God I’m spending money on the wrong things, I’m afraid.

Colbert: You’re book is called “The End of Faith.” Um, what do you mean by the end of faith? Is faith ending, or do you believe it should end?

Harris: I think it should end. I think either you have good reasons for what you believe, or you don’t. If you have good reasons, those beliefs are part of the worldview of science and rationality generally. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Mohammed went to heaven on a winged horse, that would be part of our rational worldview. And it’s only when people lose their purchase on evidence and argument, when they have bad reasons, that they talk about faith. And I think . . .

Colbert: Well, I’ve got historical evidence. The Bible tells me Jesus was born of a virgin.

Harris: Yeah, but . . .

Colbert: I mean, there’s your witness right there, the Bible.

Harris: Unfortunately, the Qu’ran says that anyone who thinks that is going to spend eternity in hell.

Colbert: But we’re not talking about the Qu’ran, we’re talking about the Bible, okay? The Bible is without flaw. It is inerrant. And we know this, because the Bible says it is without flaw.

Harris: Yeah.

Colbert: Okay, so, you’re talking about rationality and reason, what part of my logical chain . . . what part of my loop don’t you want to get on? I’m a gerbil on the wheel, my loop has no end. You can’t . . . or is that too complicated for you?

Harris: It’s true. There are . . . 44% of Americans think that Jesus is going to come down out of the clouds as a superhero and rectify every problem that we create on Earth, in the next 50 years. And this affects social policy. I mean, this affects the kinds of wars we wage, or don’t wage, this affects the kind of medical research we’re willing to fund or not fund, and this should be terrifying, because clearly, there’s no good reason to believe this. Even Biblical reasons not to believe this. And so we’re building a civilization of ignorance here.

Colbert: No, there’s something in the book of Revelations says, the book of the Revelations says . . .

Harris: That’s true . . .

Colbert: You know, the dragon, the whore of Babylon, it’s complicated, but somewhere in there, it says Jesus flies down with a cape on. But . . .

Harris: If you take Jesus in half his moods, you get that.

Colbert: But why don’t you, you can have rational, people can be rational and believe in God at the same time. I mean, you know, even, you know some cosmologists will say, there are ultimate questions we can’t answer, like why is there something instead of nothing?

Harris: Right.

Colbert: Okay, well that force, whatever caused something from nothing, you may call God, correct?

Harris: Yeah, but what, you’re redefining God out of existence. The God that most people believe in . . .

Colbert: I just defined God into existence, though.

Harris: That God is not getting people killed. The God that’s getting people killed is the God who thinks that martyrdom is a legitimate metaphysical principle, that death in the right circumstance get you to paradise with 72 virgins and all the rest. The god that’s getting people killed is the god who says that condom use is sinful, and therefore we have Catholics preaching the sinfulness of condom use in sub-Saharan Africa where literally three to four million people every year die of AIDS. I mean, this is genocidal stupidity. And yet we can’t call a spade a spade here because of the respect we accord religious dogma. And that’s what I’m arguing.

Colbert: I’ll tell you, there’s one way to settle this. I’ll see you in the afterlife. All right?

Harris: I hope not, we’ll be in the wrong place.

Colbert: Sam Harris . . . the book is “The End of Faith.”

Those interested in what true religious conviction looks like should read my panel interview with Harris about meditation here.

Uniformity

April 25, 2006 | 13 Comments

Does the uniformity of physical laws throughout the universe prove the existence of God? Richard Swinburne thinks so:

The same laws of nature govern the most distant galaxies we can observe through our telescopes as operate on earth, and the same laws govern the earliest events in time to which we can infer as operate today. Or, as I prefer to put it, every object, however distant in time and space from ourselves, has the same powers and the same liabilities to exercise those powers as do the electrons and protons of which our own bodies are made. If there is no cause of this, it would be a most extraordinary coincidence — too extraordinary for any rational person to believe. But science cannot explain why every object has the same powers and liabilities.

Many atheists misunderstand the point of this argument or underestimate its force. The confusion arises because most physical laws have been reduced to fixed equations — a fact that creates a sense that those formulae actually dictate the behavior of matter in the same way that algebraic equations generate numbers. With cold, blind mathematics running the show, the godless rationalist concludes, there’s no need for a deity. In other words, it is the uniformity itself which dispenses with the need for a god. The universe is simply a big machine running on autopilot.

But as Hume pointed out, there is no principle of logic which supports the scientific process of induction and requires uniformity. We could certainly conceive of the physical laws being different than they are, changing from year to year or instant to instant, being so inconstant and chaotic that no law could ever be derived. Past performance has thus far predicted future results, but that is an observational rather than rational principle. There is no guarantee that E will equal MC2 tomorrow. So the fact that math does apparently dictate how matter behaves — everywhere and at every time — is in some sense remarkable.

And it is a fact seemingly at odds with certain atheistic arguments. In particular, atheists who argue against the argument from design (of which Swinburne’s argument is a part) frequently appeal to notions of disorder in making their points. They will argue that humans and animals and everything is poorly, haphazardly or even “accidentally” constructed, and that the universe is largely empty and very clumpy and blotchy. But despite these complaints, they still embrace the assumption that every particle involved in process was simply fulfilling its unalterable mathematical destiny. Indeed, to allow for a deviation from the strict determinist scheme would be to admit of the possibility of miracles.

These difficulties, however, do not drive us into the arms of God. The movement of matter may mimic math, but Swinburne’s theological explanation for this is less satisfactory that any atheistic account. He suggests that God is a giant juggler with His hands on everything, guiding the movements of every atom with clock-like precision. There are two problems with this formulation. First, it makes God more or less a math-mule, enslaved to numbers — His power, consciousness and discretion count for nothing because He’s just carrying out a set of rules and making sure none of the balls drop. Second, the theory that the balls would drop without God presupposes another set of laws, the laws governing how everything would splatter, or at least the law that everything would indeed splatter without a God. And beyond that, a law that would prevent the balls from splattering into anything like you, me, or the universe.

Baby Magic

April 24, 2006 | 43 Comments

Babies gurgle and coo, but only the self-deluded would think that they’re self-conscious. It would be more of a crime to throw Tickle-Me-Elmo in a dumpster — although he also has no idea of what he’s saying, at least he can talk. But Kevin T. Keith of Sufficient Scruples, usually sensibly pro-choice, engages in some magical thinking to justify burdening society with the care of useless heaps of post-natal protoplasm:

There may be a strong moral reason for treating infants as moral persons even though they’re not: many people have strong attachments to infants (even other people’s), and regard their mistreatment as a horrible act; for this reason, we shouldn’t allow them to be mistreated even though they’re not moral persons. (From this perspective, killing an infant would be similar to desecrating a church or burning a flag: something many people think is a grave trespass even though the physical object in question cannot itself suffer harm.) For another, we may just wish to erect protection for infants as a fail-safe, or to avoid the difficulty of distinguishing those infants who are moral persons from those who are not yet so.

This is the sort of extreme anti-choice, anti-infanticide reasoning that threatens all of our civil liberties. It’s bad enough that he proposes to appease a bunch of sentimental, superstitious, flag-waving Godidiots by forbidding us to burn their symbols — now we’re going to have to extend that respect to bawling clumps of cells that symbolize nothing at all? Sure, it becomes a slippery slope once a few years have passed, but then there are Standard Aptitude Tests to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Limitations

April 21, 2006 | 15 Comments

A reader’s e-mail raises a number of questions regarding the relationship between atheism, determinism, empiricism, materialism, and logic:

I wonder if you would consider the following argument, the aim of which is to establish that agnosticism is more logically consistent than atheism.

I would presume (please correct if I’m wrong), that the strict atheist would believe the human brain evolved as a physical organ, and is subject to limitations just as are the heart, lungs, etc.

I would further presume that the atheist believes our ability to reason lies in the electrochemical processes of the brain.

Wouldn’t this suggest that human reason has limitations, and that there may exist a reality beyond the comprehension of the physical brain? It would seem strange to believe that the brain, alone among human organs, has unlimited capacity.

Michael Rogan, M.D.

Many of the issues implicated I’ve discussed here. At its core, the question is a variant of the theistic arguments that “god is beyond logic,”or “you can’t define God” or “you can’t limit God.” He’s so complicated that we can’t understand his nature, attributes or powers. God is beyond the grasp of our tiny minds in the same way that men are beyond the understanding of the physical minds of ants.

The main problem with the question is that it fails to meaningfully define the “God” at the heart of any atheistic/agnostic analysis. It’s not really talking about God at all, or anything, for that matter. Instead, it hypothesizes a vague “reality beyond the comprehension of the physical brain.” The only attribute of the deity it supplies, then, is that it is incomprehensible. That’s not a definition, but the avoidance of one. There’s nothing to which either doubt or denial can be affixed. If someone questioned whether we should believe, doubt or deny the existence of a “blark,” we’d ask what the sound was meant to denote — we wouldn’t immediately declare its existence or non-existence unprovable because of the possibility of some hidden realm of being.

Undoubtedly are many things, physical, conceptual and otherwise, that are beyond the understanding of most or all people. But mere unknowability or incomprehensibility doesn’t a God make. As I noted in the above-linked post:

[T]his argument . . . fails to provide a satisfying or usable definition. Horses were once unknown, at least in North America; did this fact make horses gods? Quarks and atoms were once unknown — should the “god” label be applied to them? Suppose tomorrow astronomers discover some new, far-away orb with properties unlike any other previously-discovered celestial object, brighter and denser than any star, and composed of elements not found on the periodic table. God? Or finally, let us hypothesize that there are millions of green, cube-shaped objects so small, distant, or otherwise elusive than no human instrument can ever detect them. Does their mere unknowability make them gods? What criteria could one possibly apply to make that assessment, if the word “god” lacks any definition?

The reader’s question focuses upon God more as the subject of “reason” than observation, but the same arguments apply. A toddler’s mind cannot grasp the quadratic equation; but that does not make the equation God. Square roots of negative numbers perplex many people, but they’re not gods either. And there may well be other mathematical or logical concepts so complex that they would defy the comprehension of any human, but merely attaching the word “god” to them is insufficient to bring the discussion into the realm of theology. Simply put, “an agnosticism based upon the notion of the incomprehensibility or undefinability of god simply avoids the question . . . the fact that ants find humans incomprehensible, does not strip humans of definite powers and attributes, or, more importantly, make humans gods.”

Once some definitional meat has been place on the word “God,” its existence becomes subject to logical disproof by establishing contradictions among its various attributes; some of the standard arguments are set forth in my Basic Assumptions and elsewhere. These arguments demonstrate that the term “god” is akin to a “square circle” or a “married bachelor, or as impossible as one plus one equaling three. Whatever the limitations of our electrochemical brains, they do not stop us from making definite judgments on those matters. I suppose one could again speculate as to a “reality beyond the comprehension of the physical brain” in which logic doesn’t apply and all those odd constructs exist. But in that realm, presumably the statement “God exists” = “God doesn’t exist” would be true as well. But all it would be would be the realm of nonsense.

Some discussion is in order regarding Rogan’s premise that the “atheist believes our ability to reason lies in the electrochemical processes of the brain.” To a degree this statement implies that atheists are all determinists — that all of their thoughts, beliefs and therefore action are controlled by the same laws governing ordinary matter. I doubt there is any unanimity on this point, except to the extent that most people, theists included, believe that there’s enough of a relationship between the physical brain and their thoughts that they wouldn’t let someone shoot a bullet in one ear and out the other. But however complex the questions of free will and the mind/body relationship may be, they are separate from the question of God. Whether humans are mechanically controlled robots or something freer says nothing about the existence of God or square circles or powerful space aliens.

If Only All Atheists Had Common Sense

April 19, 2006 | 1 Comment

[D]on’t be so condescending, Amanda, this holy man also, in this day and age, apparently believes in some ghosts in the sky. Why only mock Christianity? Are you a convert?

“Epistemology,” Commenting at Pandagon

Candidate Invokes Progressive Old Testament Principles

April 19, 2006 | 23 Comments

Shrewdly pre-empting any possible opposition to his candidacy for the New York Governorship, writer/actor Malachy McCourt quoted the Old Testament in announcing his bid to seek the Green Party nomination on a platform calling for abolition of the death penalty.

“It is quite clear in the Bible — ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,'” said McCourt, who is well-known in New York City progressive politics.

The strategy of calling for blind but selective obedience to ancient scriptures of unknown origin has recently become popular among the state’s liberal politicians, who see it as depriving conservative candidates of their customary trump card.

Noting that “our text is full of concubines and de-virginizing young girls and multiple wives and incest and gang-bangs and eating feces and chopping up babies and nakedness and hot hot sex and whatnot,” McCourt said he would disregard the passages about incest and gangbangs as “figurative.” He said he would support feces-eating because it is approved in the Book of Malachi “and my first name is the same.” Although a later chapter of Malachi calls for sinners to be burned in ovens, McCourt said his views on capital punishment remain unchanged because only the Ten Commandments are binding.

McCourt faces only token opposition from one of his brothers, Leviticus McCourt, who is running on a gay rights platform.

Shirley You Remember

April 18, 2006 | 2 Comments

Remember that old network sitcom about the wild and crazy atheist Texas prison worker who used her captive, god-fearing audience as part of an experiment in coming out of the godless closet? Actually, it was just a blog called “Atheist Exposed.” I wrote about it here but it was subsequently deleted by its author, Shirley Setterbo, who moved on to an office job within the correctional system.

Fortunately, she’s back now with a new blog, AtheistExposed2, which chronicles her adventures in the new work habitat. Atheism always simmering in the back of her mind, she lies in wait for some unsuspecting colleague to start with the God-talk. The first victim was one of her supervisors, who fell into her trap like this:

He loves to stir the pot, and he always saying the most obnoxious and outrageous things he can think up. So, I usually give him a taste of his own medicine, and I tried to think of something hateful to say, in fun of course. I asked him, “So who’s life are busy destroying now”? He fakes being offended, and with an evil grin asks me if I really think of him so poorly. I reply, that I don’t think poorly of him, I just accept him as he is, very evil. He retorts, “Surely you don’t honestly believe I’m evil.” I shrug my shoulders, “Okay, maybe not evil, but definitely naughty.” He laughs and asks me if he has at least a chance of not burning in hell.

As Shirley says, “CA-CHING.” Read what happened next here, and go back from time to time to egg her on in the comments.

What Have I Done?

April 17, 2006 | 12 Comments

This e-mail might have wounded me deeply, if I had the slightest idea what its author was getting at:

Good grief. Your blog is filled with specious logic and rhetorical excess to rival the worst religious and right-wing propagandists. It’s so bad that it’s no more worthwhile arguing the issues with you than it is to try and shake a christian fundamentalist out of his biblical literalism. “It is impossible to reason a man out of something he was not reasoned in to.”

I’m a fellow atheist, and I agree with many of your positions, but you argue them so ineptly that I’m almost ashamed to agree with you. Only “almost”; the Christians manage to at least slightly exceed your own philosophical ineptitude, and, of course, I don’t choose my beliefs based on others’ argumentative or intellectual failures in the first place.

Still, I’m sincerely glad we’ve built a society in which (at least at the moment) *everyone*, idiots and intelligensia (1) alike, can speak their minds.

No idea which of my thousand-plus posts might have triggered this attempt to provoke an argument with someone who it’s ostensibly not worth arguing with. Perhaps I mishandled Mackie’s refutation of Craig’s defense of the second premiss of the Kalam cosmological argument? I wouldn’t be the first atheist to botch that one. Thank God this fellow has the sense to pick his theological beliefs based on the truth, rather than blindly siding with whatever blog argues them least ineptly.

Or is something else bothering him? Let me guess. It probably has something to do with:

Abortion. He disagrees with my anti-choice position. I’ve (1) failed to logically agree with developmental biologists that human life begins at viability or birth or self-consciousness or teenage or stage x, y or z and to express disapproval only after that point, or (2) failed to logically realize that because developmental biologists disagree, the cut-off point must necessarily be set at the latest stage that any one of them proposes, (3) failed to logically realize the developmental biology is completely irrelevant because abortion is always an emotional, social, economic, and personal decision no matter what it kills or when, or (4) failed to logically realize that the fetus is always a parasite, or (5) failed to logically realize that abortion always an agonizing decision because every woman recognizes that the fetus is human, or (6) failed to realize that even though Nos. (1) through (5) conflict, only my particular position could be unreasonable.

Agnosticism. I’m a “fundamentalist atheist” because I (1) fail to recognize that “atheism is just a belief like any other” and (2) fail to acknowledge that it’s no more philosophically reasonable than belief in the Easter Bunny, and (3) fail to acknowledge that every belief about anything is equally magical (except pro-choice beliefs with a cut-off no earlier than viability). Plus I’m “arrogant” and too mean sometimes.

Hypocrisy Too few of my posts attempt to disprove the existence of God by pointing out that Jerry Falwell and other members of the religious right are hypocrites because they have too much money.

(1) I don’t judge other people’s intelligence by their spelling, but still, “intelligenTsia” is the last word you want to misspell if you’re trying to convince people you belong to it and the guy you’re attacking is an idiot.

Excuses, Excuses

April 17, 2006 | 8 Comments

William Saletan of Slate lists the endless excuses now being offered by theologians, the MSM and others for the failure of the recent prayer study. The first explanation is the best, despite the link to a disreputable source.

God Squad Review CLXVII (Child Sacrifice)

April 16, 2006 | 13 Comments

Was it harder for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, or for God to sacrifice his son Jesus ? a Squad reader wants to know. He figures it was easier for God to kill Jesus because He knew He could resurrect him, whereas Abraham was just acting on faith. The Squad seems a little put off by the question:

All sacrifices have their spiritual blessings and their spiritual burdens. Ranking things is more appropriate for sports bookies than people of faith, so comparing the incidents you cite is pointless; the sacrifices of Abraham and God were dramatically different.

But “ranking things,” as the Squad pejoratively puts it, is a common way of evaluating and comparing moral conduct. The Bible does it all the time. For example, it says that a small monetary donation by a poor person is better sacrifice than a big gift by a rich person. In any event, the Squad does ultimately compare Abraham’s sacrifice with God’s and implies that Abe’s was harder: “Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac to prove his faith, and he did so without knowing that God would send an angel to stay his hand at the last moment” whereas “[i]n the case of the Easter sacrifice, God knew all along, and Jesus knew all along, that the purpose of His life on earth was to die for the sins of the world.” So Abraham was taking a big gamble but God was betting on a sure thing.

Actually, it’s not as simple as all that. There may not be a significant difference between the two situations. If you’re honestly convinced that you’re getting orders from an omnipotent being, obeying it is the easiest thing in the world. If I was suddenly plucked up into a black void and given my marching orders by a bellowing deity, I wouldn’t hesitate to carry out its orders if it meant flying a plane into a skyscraper or blowing up the world. That wouldn’t really be acting on faith; it would be acting on the reality of what I experienced. Faith comes in only if you’re uncertain whether the God exists because you’ve never seen him. Of course, today you it’s hard to get away with killing a son no matter what your excuse — if you say you’re certain God told you to do it you go to a mental institution, and if you say you were just guessing you go to jail.

The most interesting thing about the Squad’s answer, however, is unrelated to the question posed. For some reason, they’ve decided to take position embracing the newly-discovered scriptures:

The recent discovery of the Gospel of Judas reinforces that central tenant of Christianity, namely that Jesus’ death was not a murder and not a betrayal, but rather a fulfillment of God’s most profound gift to humanity. In the atoning death and resurrection of God’s son, Jesus, whom Christians worship as the Christ (the Messiah), a unique physical sacrifice becomes a unique spiritual gift.

Apparently this wasn’t cleared with the Vatican: the Pope still thinks Judas was a greedy liar.

Easter Reflections

April 16, 2006 | 3 Comments

“That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908

I Rest My Case

April 15, 2006 | 19 Comments

A prominent biologist agrees: PZ Myers, godless babykiller.

The Gospel According to Jill

April 15, 2006 | 4 Comments

Mr. Swill accuses me of misrepresenting Jill of Feministe’s theological views in the Quote of the Day, suggesting that I twisted her meaning by selectively quoting from her post yesterday on the Bible. He interprets this as deliberate irony, and in particular, a response to Jill’s recent accusation that I had misrepresented her views on abortion. In fact, I wasn’t being ironic at all, but simply applying the canon of interpretation that Jill prefers. She intends that her posts be interpreted in the same way that she and all religious moderates interpret the Bible — in a non-literal way, so that words mean exactly the opposite of what they say.

I hadn’t realized this when I first read her abortion posts. In this one, for example, Jill seems to be expressing delight that religious pro-choicers like herself were injecting their faith into the debate. What made me think this was her actual words — she said, “[l]uckily, other faith-friendly pro-choicers are coming out on the offensive, and demonstrating that support for reproductive rights is not only not immoral, but fitting within a religious code that values justice and human rights.” She then quoted at length from New York Times description of a Planned Parenthood prayer breakfast last month, immediately followed by her declaration that “[t]he role of religious communities in securing abortion rights cannot be emphasized enough” and a description of historical religious pro-choice efforts. The post begins with her declaration that she’s a religious person, and a verse from Exodus demonstrating that “[t]he Bible doesn’t condone nor condemn abortion” — specifically quoted to refute the claims of the right-wing anti-abortion lobby to having a “monopoly of God.” From all this I foolishly concluded that she was contending that the religious views of the pro-choicers about abortion were the correct ones, and that she thought they were a valuable and necessary contribution to the public debate.

In fact, it turns out, I was just being “thick” or “willfully ignorant.” As she explained in comment 45, she “[doesn’t] think religion should factor in at all to the abortion debate.” Moreover, she wasn’t endorsing the conduct of the other faith-friendly pro-choicers who were “luckily . . . coming out on the offensive” last month and holding prayer breakfasts, but only referring to the historical religious pro-choice efforts. This is something, she said, “that would have been clear . . . had [I] read the post” — so clear that she felt it necessary to add this update on her blog post:

Allow me to clarify a minor point. I wrote about this because I thought it was interesting, not because I think that religious beliefs should at all influence legal standards. They shouldn’t. That should be obvious enough from everything I’ve ever written here.

Obvious (as many other thickheaded ignorant readers apparently found), if you don’tt read the post literally. Similarly, I grossly misinterpreted her statement that “after fetal viability” abortion should not legal — I said “after six months,” which is “not analogous” (it’s actually “approximately” six months).

Which leads us to her latest post on religion and why she “identifies” as a Christian, even though the Bible “is full of concubines and de-virginizing young girls and multiple wives and incest and gang-bangs and eating feces and chopping up babies and nakedness and hot hot sex and whatnot.” Despite all that stuff, she does “not accept the idea that religion itself creates misogyny and violence and whatever other ills we often attribute to it.” That’s just a crazy misinterpretation of the infallible governing text by “fundamentalists” who take literally exactly what it says. When properly read, as she’s pointed out before, the Bible can even be used by a gay church to boost its members self-esteem.

So the quote I attributed to Jill can only be read as suggesting that her Christianity is based on the Bible if read literally. But that’s not how religious talk is supposed to be interpreted — you have to pick and choose, cut and paste, pretend you mean one thing and say another. Do you actually believe that when Jill says she’s a “Christian,” she’s affirming a belief in the divinity of a man who died and rose from the dead to atone for our sins and give us eternal life? Do you believe when she writes a post about her religion, she’s actually talking about her religion? Of course not, as she explained here:

I consider my own beliefs to be private. I don’t think they’re any better or worse than yours, and I don’t like arguing about them in a public forum, because to me, they’re deeply personal, and between me and my God.

Or, in other words, she considers her beliefs to be a matter of public record, superior to all others, and worthy of exposition in just about every other post at Feministe. After all, if you’ve had personal contact with the omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe — to the extent you can call him “my God” — you’ve just got to share.

Self Identification

April 14, 2006 | 14 Comments

I identify as a Christian . . . a lot of our text is full of concubines and de-virginizing young girls and multiple wives and incest and gang-bangs and eating feces and chopping up babies and nakedness and hot hot sex and whatnot.

Jill of Feministe

Village Poet Sees No Artistry in Non-Blasphemous Sculpture

April 13, 2006 | 3 Comments

New York, New York, April 14, 2006
Special to The Raving Atheist

A dead rabbit encased in a block of ice was found lacking in artistic merit by a Greenwich Village poet, apparently due to its failure to communicate an obscene anti-religious message.

The sculpture was discovered by poet Gerry Gomez Pearlberg in Union Square Park after a disheveled mystery man dumped the corpse and ran away.

“I was really grossed out,” said Pearlberg, who nevertheless posted photos of the blood-filled ice block on the Internet. “If it was an art project I’m not quite sure what was artful about that,” he said.

Pearlberg’s words marked the first time that a discarded, decomposing ice-caked animal corpse was denied art status by a counter-culture poet.

Art historians credit the negative review to the display’s failure to depict Jesus Christ marinating in the sculptor’s urine or to otherwise desecrate a Catholic deity. “Even if the rabbit is interpreted to symbolize the Virgin Mary or a member of the Holy Trinity, it’s not smeared with elephant feces or festooned with vagina pictures,” said one expert. “As such, it’s completely devoid of socially redeeming value.” Columnist Michelle Malkin today joined in the call for more blasphemous art, calling for cartoons desecrating the prophet Mohammed to be displayed alongside images of Jesus Christ defecating on President Bush and the Virgin Mary coated in animal dung.

Pearlberg’s photographs of the rabbit corpse will be displayed as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s “Fuck Easter” exhibit this Sunday.

Court “Upbraids” Inmate for Seeking Faith-Based Haircut Exemption

April 12, 2006 | 14 Comments

Upholding prison regulations requiring inmates to maintain their hair shoulder length or shorter, a federal appeals court yesterday rejected a Wiccan inmate’s argument that trimming her waist-length braids would violate her Constitutional right to religious freedom.

Raven Nightfeather, serving a one-year sentence for credit card fraud, claimed that her hairstyle was “an outward manifestation of [her] inner commitment to the Spiritual Path” and insisted that a haircut would constitute a “defilement.”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, relying on a recent precedent vindicating a three-inch hair limit for men. In that case, the court recognized a “legitimate penological interest in the enforcement of uniform grooming standards” insofar as longer hair facilitated the concealment of contraband, contributed to hygienic problems including lice, made prisoner identification more difficult, and otherwise increased the costs of maintaining institutional discipline.

The court found Mrs. Nightfeather’s case “indistinguishable” and stated that health, safety and economic concerns “far outweighed petitioner’s mystical attachment to her braids.” The sixteen-page ruling emphasized that granting her a special exemption based upon her religion would unfairly discriminate against non-religious prisoners who wished to wear their hair long for aesthetic reasons.

The decision further authorized prison officials to administer RU486 to abort Nightfeather’s four-week-old fetus. “Petitioner’s subjective views regarding the humanity of the cell mass cannot trump the prison’s interest in avoiding the increased nutritional and medical expenses associated with pregnancy,” said the court. Noting that Mrs. Nightfeather could make similarly irrational claims regarding the humanity of her hair follicles, the panel stated that it would be no more obliged to accept them that it would had she expressed a maternal attachment to headlice clinging to her scalp.

“In short,” concluded the court, “the Constitution does not require us accord heightened moral status to a body parasite to accommodate petitioner’s fanciful belief in sperm magic.”

Personally Speaking

April 12, 2006 | 24 Comments

“When does being a person begin?” Most medical authorities and Planned Parenthood agree that it starts when a baby takes its first breath.

Dr. Vanessa Cullins, Planned Parenthood website

Bad Wabbit

April 12, 2006 | 6 Comments

Peter Cottontail has gone godless. As part of a War on Easter, 666 copies of Brian Flemming’s best-selling atheistic DVD documentary The God Who Wasn’t There are being hidden like “Easter eggs” in sanctuaries, church yards and other holy areas. From the press release:

Flyers explaining the will be planted by undercover operatives among actual Easter eggs at churches holding egg hunts on Easter Sunday.

“People go to churches to hide from the truth,” explained Beyond Belief Media president Brian Flemming, a former Christian fundamentalist. “At no time is this more apparent than Easter, when Christians get together to convince each other that a man died, stayed dead three days, rose from the dead and then flew into the air above the clouds.

“Our nonviolent campaign sends the message that nowhere in the country is safe from the truth. Wherever Christian leaders are indoctrinating children with 2000-year-old fairy tales, the truth may just find its way there.

“Our ‘War on Easter’ is of course completely without violence of any kind. Christians believe that beating a man to a pulp and nailing him to a cross somehow solves all the world’s problems.”

(Pictures from the battlefield here).

Too in-Thou-Face? I’ve opposed trespassing upon private houses of worship, especially to have sex. My own preferred mode of evangelism is blogging. If a Christian complains that my intolerance is impinging on his freedom of religion, I can point out it’s the price you pay for entering a site you’ve Googled to with an “atheists go to hell” search.

But I don’t think the War on Easter campaign crosses any lines. It’s just leafleting with DVDs. The Jehovah’s witnesses and the Gideon Bible Society do it, more often and more obtrusively. And we live in a nation were millions of public school children are coerced every morning to pledge allegiance to God. Offering a truth-filled documentary (including my plug for CPCs) once a year to a few hundred parishioners can hardly be compared to the Crusades. (Not that I would object to a crusade, like taxing the churches out of existence with the same laws that apply to store-front psychics).

Will the promotion give atheists worse rep? l doubt it. I mean, Jehovah, Jehovah, how could it be worse??

Conceptual Thinking

April 11, 2006 | 54 Comments

My conception about conception is ill-conceived, says Professor Myers (see comment 51) of Pharyngula:

I’m afraid you are engaging in magical thinking. Your identity was most definitely not established at fertilization, mathematically or genetically. You are the outcome of a long, long chain of equally significant developmental events post-fertilization — you trivialize a complex process when you dismiss it as nothing but a foreordained computation once two gametes meet.

What you are preaching is a kind of genetic predestination that has been rejected by developmental biologists everywhere. It’s been about 30 years since a serious biologist made a comparable claim, and he (Benzer) has retreated far from it since.

Your quoted post is talking about Sperm (and Egg) Magic. Life doesn’t work that way.

In the sense in which what Professor Myers says is correct, unfortunately, I haven’t realized my full identity even today. The chain of “significant developmental events post-fertilization” will continue until my death. While plainly I am not now identical developmentally to what I was at conception, I am also radically different from what I was at ages one, two, five, ten and fifteen — so much so that it could be argued that I am not meaningfully the “same person” as any of those individuals, or the one I will be at 100. And certainly any number of significant pre- or post-natal influences — environmental, psychological or physical — could have at any of those points shaped me into something very different that what I am at present. No “foreordained computation” charted my path from infancy to boyhood to manhood. But these observations offer little help in determining at which stage of incarnation my physical being became privileged against extermination.

There is no magic in arguing that my identity at conception was sufficiently “me” to merit such protection. Obviously, it was sufficiently me that had that particular clump of cells being destroyed, I would not have been here today. Clipping my mother’s toenails would not have done the job. My identity did not reside in a clump of cells in a different woman, and another zygote would not have become me had the one in my mother been eliminated. That kind of theory is the one that requires magic, one involving an immaterial soul and its migration from body to body.

Magic, too, would be the theory that mathematically and genetically I could have become something entirely different. I could not have become a tree frog. I could not have become Professor Myers. I could not have assumed the genetic identity of some other race, or even the genetic identity different parents of my own race. Even developmental biologists would recognize that the genes of my parents predestined my physical make-up in a more significant way that any subsequent developmental event. So if my embrace of conception is “magic,” it is less so than any later point at which someone might draw the line.

Professor Myers does not pinpoint which moment he believes to be the true beginning of human identity, mathematically, genetically or otherwise. But his criteria do not appear to be all strictly scientific. Responding to a Feministe poll, he stated that he’s “in favor of voluntary late term abortions (where premature birth would impose severe economic hardship, for instance), and can even consider situations where infanticide is ethically tenable.” So at least part of the “complex process” of computation of human life involves dollars and cents, something well outside the competence of developmental biologists.

The financial viability of the fetus or toddler, then, must be assessed. Note, however, that the professor requires the economic hardship to be “severe.” So at least in some cases, like Jill, he would legally prohibit the procedure and compel childbirth (or childrearing) — presumably at that the magic moment of development identified by the biologists. That decision, in turn, could only be overruled by properly qualified certified public accountants.

Perhaps I am misinterpreting things again. To be charitable, I’ll assume that at least post-birth, he’s not talking about the impoverished but only the “undesirables” (wink wink). Having grown up surrounded by ‘tards, I’m in considerable sympathy with him here, but an unmagical sense of caution grips my non-soul. There are some decisions that might best not be delegated entirely to the professors, the gene counters and the bean counters.

UPDATE: Professor Myers responds (comment 5). Note: His support of infanticide does not extend to undesireables.

Medical Study Confirms Power of Cursing

April 10, 2006 | 15 Comments

Durham, North Carolina, April 10, 2006
Special to The Raving Atheist

Curses offered by strangers to induce heart failure are highly effective, concludes a $3.4 million study to be published in the American Heart Journal next week.

Researchers told 1,802 paranoid schizophrenics at six mental institutions that government agents in black helicopters were circling their buildings and praying for their hearts to explode. Nearly 97% of the patients suffered cardiac arrest within two hours, with the remainder experiencing acute arrhythmia.

“Satan apparently loves to be tested,” said Dr. Harold Benson, the cardiologist who authored the study.

Skeptics dismissed the results as the power of suggestion on highly unstable subjects. However, Dr. Benson noted that the patients’ paranoia was not a relevant factor because the helicopters were real rather than the product of delusion. He further noted that there was no statistically significant difference in the morality rate among a second group of 1,635 paranoiacs, who were falsely advised that the black helicopters circling their buildings were not full of government agents wishing them death.

God Squad Review CLXVI (Memorials and Curses)

April 10, 2006 | 7 Comments

Aren’t you always touched by those flowery roadside memorials at fatal accident sites? The Squad isn’t:

There’s nothing sacred about where people die. These are often places of blood and gore, pain and sorrow. Most dramatically, they are solitary places. Cemeteries, by contrast, are places of communal grief, where we’re reminded and comforted in the knowledge that death is a part of life, and that even though we’re taken from those who loved us, we’re joined after death with the souls of those who reached heaven before us.

Makeshift memorials, often along busy highways or lonely, dangerous lanes, are not places where we should convene to mourn our dead. The ancient wisdom of our inherited religious traditions points beyond death, while roadside memorials point only to death.

But what if you die in an accident at a cemetery? And how about all those expensive memorials at places like the World Trade Center, Auschwitz and Hiroshima? Those are the ultimate death sites, and nobody ever refers to them as anything but “sacred ground.” Apparently God feels the same way:

The only exceptions are places of mass death. Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the site of the World Trade Center all demand spiritual markers.

We were asked by New York Gov. George Pataki to participate in a memorial service for victims of TWA Flight 800 that crashed in the waters off Long Island in 1996. There was a need for those families to gather, walk to the shore and touch the water that was touching the bodies of their loved ones.

But don’t families have an equal need to touch the utility pole that junior wrapped his car around? How many drunken classmates does he have to take down with him before he qualifies for burial on the exit ramp?

If anything, I’d think that sites of mass murder are less inviting as memorials. I doubt they’ve built any kind of shrine at Jeffrey Dahmer’s old apartment. And why did they include Hiroshima in that list? They deserved it.

In any event, the Squad does concludes that not every sort of mass grave makes an appropriate memorial:

However, the problem with communal monuments, even at places of mass death, is that there’s no ancient wisdom guiding us as to what kind of memorial to erect.

There’s now a stone memorial wall in Smith Point Park on Long Island with the names of all those who died on Flight 800. It’s a respectful monument, but it misses something. That something is the hope, the belief, the certain spiritual knowledge that death is not the end of us, and that we will not be separated forever from those we love.

In other words, the memorial doesn’t have “God” written all over it (or a twisted, crucifix-shaped fragment of the aircraft’s tail) because some cranky atheist complained.

* * *

Does asking God to harm people work? In the second letter, a Squad reader is afraid that his ailing mom will curse him for not taking care of her 24/7. The Squad explains that talking to God is futile:

Every religion has superstitious elements and lofty ethical elements and elements that fall somewhere in between. Curses are superstitions that have been co-opted by some organized religions, not always to their benefit.

The belief that people can cause harm to others by cursing them is a form of magical thinking, and, as such, is classic idolatry. It imagines that the curser can control God’s power or direct that power to hurt someone whom God did not intend to hurt had the curse not been cast. Imagining that we can control God is absurd and sinful. It also imagines that God is our agent in addressing our grievances and grudges. Still, we both honor the superstitions of our grandparents, despite our theological objections.

It’s both charming and unfortunate that our fears of loss and disappointment have carried over from pagan practices into our wisdom traditions.

The wisdom tradition of believing you can control God’s actions through prayer, of course, is not superstition or magical thinking. But you’re in a bit of a spot if you want to pray that the SWAT team blows the terrorists away before they kill you and your fellow hostage. After all, wishing death on your tormentors is essentially cursing them.

To be fair, the Squad’s position (sometimes) on prayer isn’t that God directly intervenes on command, but that He gives you the strength to deal with your problem or cope with the pain. So maybe while you’re not allowed to wish death directly on your enemies, you can ask God to give them the weakness to collapse and die.

Student Molested by Math Teacher Loses Faith in Numbers

April 9, 2006 | 10 Comments

April 9, 2006, Boston, Massachusetts
Special to The Raving Atheist

Testifying the sentencing of his sixth grade math teacher, a victim of childhood molestation testified that the abuse destroyed his faith in numbers.

“I once marveled at the beauty and simplicity of mathematics,” said John Hendrickson, now 35, “Mr. Palmer robbed me of that innocent and comforting awe.” Hendrickson stated that addition had no meaning for him and that he would never trust the multiplication tables again.

Hendrickson broke down in tears as he described how Palmer, a non-believer, also destroyed his belief in atheism. “I once embraced a carefree, naturalistic view of the universe free from the tyranny of superstition and guilt-driven moral codes,” he said. “But now I worship the virgin-born, martyred and resurrected son of a loving and merciful deity.”

Lawless

April 7, 2006 | 8 Comments

Without laws, everything is permitted.

The Raving Atheist, Criminalize Everything, 2008

Magic

April 7, 2006 | 58 Comments

What do authoritarian, women-hating atheists like me do when they realize there’s no God to back up their crazy anti-abortion stance? Amanda of Pandagon explains it all:

Godlessness and liberalism generally do go together, though, because I think that once you embrace a view of equality, you stop needing a god around to justify hierarchies. That said, it’s obvious that a minority of atheists start off as pro-hierarchy and simply try to find replacement religions to justify their arguments from authority — the Raving Atheist, for instance, is on that list and he’s prone to making anti-abortion arguments invoking the concept that ensoulment happens at conception, proving that while atheists by definition don’t believe in god, some of us still believe in magic, in this case Sperm Magic. Again, I’m wary of “atheist” as a group identity for that reason. You can’t really conclude anything about an atheist but that he/she doesn’t believe in god; that person might be a magical thinker anyway, might deify science or space aliens or Sperm Magic, like RA does.

Amanda doesn’t link to the posts in which I supposedly made these arguments about souls and sperm (perhaps she believe being an atheist relieves her from citing any authority at all). I have not. In fact, I’ve argued precisely the opposite:

I don’t believe that God installs an eternal soul into every person at conception. I don’t believe in eternal souls at all. If they did exist, abortion wouldn’t matter. The soul could simply reunite with God, or find another body to inhabit. Murder wouldn’t matter, either, for the same reason.

But I do believe that my genetic, mathematical identity was set at conception. That is not some fantasy or superstition. To have destroyed that clump of cells would have destroyed me, forever, and my only chance at existence. No soul would have escaped to emerge in another pregnancy, any more than that I would survive somewhere else as someone else were I killed tomorrow. It is a distinctly superstitious view that so completely separates human identity from its material form. It is the view that sustains belief in a ghosts, spirits, angels, reincarnation and heaven. There are religious pro-choice people who support abortion on precisely the ground that the fetus re-emerges elsewhere; it is not clear to under that theory why the death of the mother in a dangerous pregnancy would concern them if she enjoys the same fate.

It would equally be a fantasy to believe that I existed before conception. No sperm or egg, has the potential by itself to develop into a human being — any more than does an acorn or a rock. The Mormon view that we all met together God at creation, before our births, is as much a fantasy as the Christian view that we join Him after death. I was never, genetically or mathematically, identical or even similar to anything that existed before my conception.

So I’ve never relied on any form of superstition or magic to support my position. My view that human life begins at conception is shared by many atheists. As late as 1963, even Planned Parenthood proclaimed that “an abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun.” I don’t think Amanda would accuse a pregnant woman who believed what that she saw on an ultrasound was fully her child of “magical” thinking. And there are plenty of feminists who support penalizing the killing of a wanted fetus (at any stage) by a third party, a position which could not possibly be justified without according it human status.

Magical thinking occurs when one asserts that the human status of the fetus is mind-dependent, varying from woman to woman, dependent on the notion of “wantedness.” That’s the thinking prevalent in the pro-choice movement today. “Nobody can say when life begins,” the argument goes, “so it’s whatever anybody says it is.” Or “between a woman and her god,” even if that god throws infants into volcanos. Planned Parenthood and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice have hired clergy to promote precisely that sort of view.

Amanda raises the “sperm magic” argument simply to avoid a discussion of the fetus and identifying at which magical moment after conception she would draw the line. Unless she believes that babies are brought full-grown by the stork, she does draw it somewhere. And at that point, whether it’s six months, eight months or after birth, all her talk about “hierarchy” and “authority” would magically disappear. She’d become as hierarchical as anyone else, insisting that the being had some sort of intrinsic worth that entitled it to moral and/or legal protection.

Significantly, I’ve never seen Amanda criticize pro-choice advocates who engage in arguments from hierarchy and authority. Jill of Feministe believes that abortion should be unlawful after six months after conception, the state assuming a higher hierarchical position at that point. She also believes that religious theories are relevant to the debate, specifically those contained in the Book of Exodus. It doesn’t get any more magical or hierarchical than that.

[UPDATE: Jill of Feministe responds to my characterization of her views (comment 45) and I reply (comment 46).].

[UPDATE 2: Jill of Feministe bans me from her blog (comment 48) and I apologize (comment 49)].

Go Get It, Girls

April 6, 2006 | 17 Comments

The God Who Wasn’t There has reached NUMBER ONE on Amazon.com’s list of best-selling documentary DVDs. My voice is on one of the audio tracks — and looking at some of the other top picks on the same list, I can only imagine what it’s being used for:

Number 25: Female Masturbation : Every Woman’s Orgasm is Unique

Number 40: Female Masturbation — Clitoris: The Key to a Woman’s Pleasure

Number 73: Female Masturbation – Pleasures of a Woman in Orgasm

Number 80: Deliberate Orgasm Duet: Expanding Female Orgasm plus The Technique of Peaking and Extended Orgasm

Not to mention New Sex Now and Stripilates.

Not that I’m bragging or anything. At most I’m the warm-up act: also in the top 100 are The Perfect Pregnancy Workout and Laugh and Learn about Childbirth.

F__ing Atheists

April 6, 2006 | 23 Comments

One of the worst sins you can commit in America is offending religious sensitivities, even the sensitivities of Christ-deniers. A few years back Hillary Clinton caught flak for calling an aide a fucking Jew bastard, and today the only issue being discussed in connection a riot by violent Hasidim is whether a police officer attempted to disperse the mob by shouting “get the fucking Jews out of here.” But complaints of discrimination against atheists are treated a big joke, even when the offense involves more than mere name-calling. Beth Birnbaum describes her experience over the past half-century:

They’ve been bugging me since Kindergarten, when I refused to say the “Under God” in the pledge recently added by Eisenhower. Or when I raised my hand and protested my third grade teacher reading the 23rd Psalm, freely admitting she was going against the Supreme Court ruling.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. When I protested my son’s sixth-grade graduation being full of quasi-religious songs (from cartoons such as Prince of Egypt, we’re not talking Bible here) despite back-up from a lawyer/PTA mother, I was banned from an elementary school (at the age of 48). Worse, my children and I were attacked and reviled throughout the neighborhood by Christians and Jews alike. (Hindis and others agreed with me, but were afraid to speak up.) So much for America, land of freedom, let’s import it to the world.

Moreover, as she explains, even the “Jews refuse to accept my turning my back on the faith of my forefathers.”

More thoughts by Ms. Birnbaum can be found here (religious cartoons), here (Jews for Jesus theme park) and here (memorials).

Throwing Back the Gauntlet

April 5, 2006 | 25 Comments

The Center for Inquiry Community of Long Island recently challenged The God Squad to a debate. As expected, the Squad has declined:

TO OUR READERS:

Recently, some secular humanists challenged us to a debate. The note we sent them appears below. This closes the matter for us.

For those who suspect from our chosen calling that we are religious, we plead guilty. We are religious not just because we inherited our faiths. We both believe religion takes us closer to the truth than any secular philosophy. This conviction does not constitute bigotry, nor is it intolerance. It is faith.

However, it’s also a part of our faith to apologize to anyone we’ve inadvertently offended, so we apologize to all atheists for any feelings of hurt they may have gleaned from our faith in God, and for our belief that faith in God is the most secure foundation for ethical thinking and for the protection of the dignity of all people, whom we believe, with a complete faith, are made in the image of God.

TO SECULAR HUMANISTS:

Thank you for your offer to debate which, regrettably, we must decline. Tom is very ill with Parkinson’s disease, and Marc has no inclination to appear without him. You also invited us to debate on a Friday night, which is the Jewish Sabbath.

However, let us try to disabuse you of the impression you may have wrongly garnered from our writings. This is what we both believe:

1. We believe that atheists can absolutely be moral people.

2. We believe that every coherent ethical theory must be able to universalize its ethical imperatives.

3. We believe that there are secular and religious ways to universalize ethical theories.

4. We ground our ethical theories in a natural rights understanding that provides both religious and rational justification for ethical imperatives.

We endorse any person who is working for the betterment of humankind, and we condemn anyone who uses either religious or secular ideologies to oppress and exploit people.

We hope this clears up any misunderstanding, and though we cannot ask that God bless you for fear of offending you, we offer our best wishes for your continued work for goodness in our broken world. — Marc and Tom

Given that they responded at all, it was more than I expected. I’ll take their explanation for not debating at face value, but I’m a little skeptical. The two are still offering their services as speakers online. Even assuming that Father Hartman is too ill to venture out, I find it hard to believe that the Rabbi has stopped making appearances. And the bit about Friday night suggests they were just looking for excuses — if they were interested they could have easily suggested a different date.

That aside, is their apology good enough for you?

Asymmetry

April 3, 2006 | 15 Comments

[UPDATE: Aaron Kinney responds.]

The recent release of the failed prayer-healing study has inspired Aaron Kinney to critique what he calls the “asymmetry of immaterialism.” Specifically, he notes that while the supernatural-minded are quick to dismiss such scientific studies on the ground that immaterial entities are a priori untestable and undetectable by material means, they nevertheless insist that immaterial objects can test and observe material ones. He concludes that “[i]t is simply not logical to claim that there is a one-way street in regards to the interaction of immaterial and material entities.” To illustrate the point, he provides four statements which he claims “are not logically correct because they are asymmetrical”:

(1) For you to be in my line of sight, I need not be in your line of sight.

(2) To hold up this 10 pound object, I need not exert any force.

(3) It is wrong for me to murder you, but it is not wrong for you to murder me.

(4) I am your Son, but you are not my Father.

I think this analysis is flawed for a number of reasons. Some of the statements may be false because they involve contradictions, but this has nothing to do with their symmetry or asymmetry.

First, the “asymmetry” of a proposition does not prove its falsity. AK seems to be asserting that the converse of every true statement must also be true, but that’s not simply not the case. It may sometimes be the case, but that can only be determined by examining the nature of the proposition.

Example (1) is false simply because we know, empirically, that light travels in a straight line (mostly) and that two objects on the same line must thus be in the same line of sight. But if we preserve the “asymmetry” and change the statement just a little, we can form a true statement such as “for you to be looking at me, I need not be looking at you.”

Example (2) is false because we know, empirically, in a gravitational field, force must be applied to keep an object from falling. But again, a slight modification — changing the weight term to one of mass — could convert it into an asymmetrical but nonetheless true statement: “To hold up this 10 kilogram object, I need not exert any force.” Astronauts do that all the time in zero-gravity situations.

Example (3) is false (to the extent moral statements have a truth value) only because “murder” implies a wrong, or at least a legal wrong. But the symmetry of the “who kills who” aspect of it is irrelevant. There are plenty of situations in which it would be right for one person to kill another, but not vice versa — a police officer would be justified in killing a sniper or suicide bomber. And statements of the “it is wrong for me to X you, but it is not wrong for you to X me” are true in countless situations despite the asymmetry. It’s fine for a small child to sit on its parent’s lap, but the adult doesn’t have the same privilege.

Example (4), as a commentor pointed out, may be true as it stands because the “you” may be the son’s mother (I thought everyone knew this riddle). Furthermore, the effect of the symmetry in relationships between people is very fact-sensitive. “I am your sibling, but you are not my sibling” is always false, whereas “I am your brother, but you are not my brother” is only sometimes true (where there’s a sister). And returning to the actual example given, we can see that “I am your son, and you are my father” is less symmetric than “I am your son, and you are my son,” but experience teaches us that the first is true and the second is not.

Which bring us to the question of whether, as AK insists, there is a necessary symmetry between the ability of material and immaterial things to observe and test one another. I don’t see why this would be so. This supposed rule doesn’t even hold between material entities. I can observe and test a rock, but that doesn’t mean the rock can observe and test me. And as the religious are fond of pointing out, people can see ants — but ants can’t even conceive of people. (Although they use this fact to argue that things beyond the comprehension of people might exist, as I point out here, that argument is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God).

AK also talks more broadly about interaction between material and immaterial things, again reasoning that if somethingness can’t affect nothingness, nothingness shouldn’t be able to affect somethingness. If I can’t pick up a ghost, a ghost can’t pick up me. The problem with this logic, is logic itself. Logic is immaterial, and yet AK insists that it governs the possibility of interaction between all things in all situations. And all of science is premised upon the existence of invisible “laws” which somehow infallibly direct the workings of all matter. Numbers, too, are immaterial, but play a large role in our interactions with the universe. I can’t interact with the number 2, change the laws of gravity or violate laws of logic, but they still affect me quite profoundly (even if they’re not omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent or even conscious).

Ultimately, then, flaw in the religious criticism of the prayer studies doesn’thave to do with asymmetry or the impossibility of the interaction of nothing with something. The flaw is in claiming that prayer effects are a priori undetectable. They’re not — it’s just that a posteriori, there are no effects.

God Squad Review CXLVI (Atonement through Sacrifice)

April 2, 2006 | 10 Comments

“Why would killing something take away your sins?” a Catholic asks the Squad. The reader “never questioned what we were taught” but now thinks the idea of having someone innocent die to atone for the wrongs of others “seems crazy.” The Squad admits that there’s a “paradox” at the very least, “because in any setting other than sacrifice, blood defiles and does not cleanse.” Nonetheless, they seem to be under the impression that merely repeating the theory is enough to explain it:

In the person of Jesus, the sacrifice was no longer offered to God. Now, the sacrifice was offered by God. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, atonement was made for the sins of all people who believe in Jesus as “the Lamb of God.”

Sacrifice spills blood, and blood is life, and life needs to be protected and saved. In the rabbinic and New Testament transformations of this ancient practice, the concept of sacrifice is brought to new levels of spiritual richness. We believe that even the nonreligious among us can grasp the deep meaning of blood sacrifice . . . . Sacrifice is not just a concept that lies at the heart of religious faith; it’s a concept that lies at the heart of life.

Not at the heart of my life. The only person who has ever suffered for my wrongdoing is me. And that old lady I beheaded last week to beat a parking ticket.

Disheartening

April 1, 2006 | 22 Comments

Prayer doesn’t help heal heart bypass patients, concludes a $2.4 million study to be published in The American Heart Journal next week. I covered this issue a few years back after Duke Medical Center study reached the same conclusion regarding prayer’s effect on angioplasty patients. Don’t have much to add here, but maybe these “disheartening” results just represent some specific divine prejudice against cardiological disorders. God might be picky — after all, we know that He hates amputees. So why not throw another $100 million into finding out whether He’s more favorably inclined to help those with rabies, emphysema, hepatitis, diabetes, epilepsy, leukemia, Alzheimer’s esophagitis, hydrocephalus, dermatitis, obesity, gonorrhea, diverticulitis, neuralgia, asbestosis, enuresis, spondylitis, osteomyelitis, rhinitis, laryngitis, eczema, halitosis, chlamydia, AIDS, retinoschisis, rubella, osteoporosis, flatulence, diphtheria, endometriosis, yersiniosis, arthritis, rosacea, pancreatitis, tapeworm, sciatica, indigestion, encephalitis, hypothermia, tendinitis, anemia, glaucoma, neurofibromatosis, influenza, vertigo, acne, rickets, elephantiasis, hemophilia, typhoid (etc. etc.)?

No, I wouldn’t contribute anything. However, I might give a buck or two to find out why “humanism” is identified as a disease on the site I consulted to compile the list above. Perhaps the Templeton Foundation, which funded the heart bypass study, is conducting another experiment on the effects of subliminal suggestion.

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