The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2006 October

While We’re Waiting

October 27, 2006 | 18 Comments

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris notes that that there “seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science.” While we’re waiting to straighten out the remaining server kinks, let’s conduct our own study. What do you predict the breakdown of the House of Representatives and Senate will be after the November elections? Currently, it stands as follows:

SENATE (100)

Republicans: 55
Democrats: 44
Independent: 1

HOUSE (435)

Republicans: 230
Democrats: 201
Independent: 1
Vacant: 3

Please post your predictions in the form “D49 R49 I2; D216 R216 I3.” I will supply the correct answers next week. If you wish, you may also predict the percentage increase/decrease in the atheist population after two years depending on the outcome (just place +2% or –10% after your Congressional prediction).

Server Problem

October 27, 2006 | Comments Off

As you may have noticed, a server problem temporarily disabled this site. I have reposted a missing post, and will work to restore some comments that appear to have been lost.

Thank you for your patience.

NOTE: All the missing comments will ultimately be restored, as back-up copies of them are automatically forwarded to an independent e-mail address. However, as I would prefer to avoid spending time cutting and pasting them back in from e-mails, I will first ascerrtain whether they can be recovered from the server.

Return to Sender

October 27, 2006 | 9 Comments

To whom is Sam Harris mailing his Letter to a Christian Nation? The title suggests that he is attempting to persuade religious believers to change their views, an approach which seems to be confirmed by much of the tone and content of the “letter.” But in the introductory “Note to the Reader,” Harris states:

While this book is intended for people of all faiths, it has been written in the form of a letter to a Christian. In it, I respond to many of the arguments that Christians put forward in defense of their religious beliefs. The primary purpose of the book is to arm secularists in our society, who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian Right.

Harris concludes that “[i]n this, liberals, moderates, and non-believers can recognize a common cause.”

Now by “secularists,” obviously, Harris doesn’t mean just atheists — it would make little sense to “arm” them with anti-religious arguments that he himself thinks would be unpersuasive to believers. Rather, as he indicates, “secularists” includes “people of all faiths” who believe in church/state separation. But I don’t see how that approach makes much sense either.

First, if Harris is talking about religious arguments, the arguments are the same whether he’s attacking right-wing theology, moderate theology or left-wing theology. So liberals and moderates “armed” with such arguments wouldn’t just be at war with the Right. They’d be arguing against their own beliefs as well. They couldn’t make the arguments while still remaining “people of faith.” Moreover, even if they somehow could, the arguments wouldn’t really constitute ammunition. Harris concedes that they lack any persuasive power against the “opponents on the Christian Right.”

Second, if Harris talking about church/state separation arguments, the arguments are redundant because he’s already defined his audience as people who already believe in it. More importantly, the separation arguments inevitably depend on the anti-religious arguments; if, in fact, the religious claims are true, there’s no reason whatsoever to keep them out of public policy. So once again, Harris is effectively asking liberal and moderate believers to convince the [unconvincible] Right that religion should be kept out of policy because it is false.

The traditional liberal Christian argument for church/state separation is not religious beliefs are unworthy of belief. It’s that the New Testament requires non-interference with politics under the “render-unto-Caesar” theory. But that argument is a scriptural one, one which Harris could hardly advance without abandoning his own beliefs.

For Ums, For You

October 21, 2006 | 9 Comments

The Raving Atheist Forums have moved to a new, independent domain. They’re now The Raving AtheistS Forums, at www.ravingatheists.com. You can still access them with the to link to the right, or simply revise your bookmark to reflect the added “s”.

My webmistress, Chris Michaud, did a spectacular job in creating and maintaining the vibrant online community that is the Forums. They are all hers now, and I hope you’ll give her your full support as she expands her empire — which I understand will include atheist blog-hosting. Gratitude is also due to Eva and Tenspace for their selfless service as moderators.

Good luck (and God Bless) to all!

Embarrassed?

October 20, 2006 | 39 Comments

Atheist author Richard Dawkins and Irish Independent columnist David Quinn debated the existence of God earlier this month on the The Tubridy Show. A reader of Amy Welborn’s Open Book opined that Quinn “absolutely embarrassed” Dawkins — an opinion shared by a variety of bloggers:

Crusading Atheist Meets His Match
Richard Dawkins Getting Schooled by David Quinn
Dawkins Does Badly in Debate
Richard Dawkins Gets a Hard Time

Quinn left a comment of his own at Open Book on Wednesday. You can listen to the debate here (scroll down to October 9) or read the transcript:

Moderator [Ryan Tubridy]: This morning we are asking, “What’s wrong with religion?” It’s one of the questions raised in a new book called The God Delusion. And we’re going to talk to its author, a man who’s been dubbed the world’s most famous out-of-the-closet atheist, Richard Dawkins. Richard, good morning to you.

Dawkins: Good morning.

Moderator: It’s nice to talk to you again.. We talked before once on a similar subject matter. David Quinn is also with us here. David Quinn is a columnist with the Irish Independent. David, a very good morning to you.

Quinn: Good morning.

MODERATORSo Richard Dawkins, here you go again, up to your old tricks in your most recent book The God Delusion. Let’s just talk about the word, if you don’t mind, the word “delusion,” so it puts it into context. Why do you think that . . .

Dawkins: Well, the word “delusion” means a falsehood which is widely believed, to me, and I think that is true of religion. It is remarkably widely believed. It’s as though almost all the population, a substantial portion of the population, believed that they’d been abducted by aliens in flying saucers. You’d call that a delusion. I think God is a similar delusion.

Moderator: And would it be fair to say you equate God with, say, the imaginary friend, the bogey-man, or the fairies at the end of the garden.

Dawkins: Well, I think he’s just as probable to exist, yes, and I do discuss all those things, especially the imaginary friend, which I think is a interesting psychological phenomenon in childhood, and that may possibly have something to do with the appeal of religion.

Moderator: So take us through that a little bit, about the imaginary friend factor.

Dawkins: Many young children have an imaginary friend. Christopher Robin had Binker. A little girl who wrote to me had little purple man. And the girl with the little purple man actually saw him. She seemed to hallucinate him, he appeared with a little tinkling bell and he was very, very real to her, although in a sense she knew he wasn’t real. I suspect that something like that is going on with people who claim to have heard God or seen God, or hear the voice of God.

Moderator: And we’re back to delusion again. Do you think that anyone who believes in God, anyone of any religion, is deluded? Is that the bottom line with your argument, Richard?

Dawkins: Well, there is a sophisticated form of religion. One form of it is Einstein’s. It wasn’t really religion at all. Einstein used the word “God” a great deal, but he didn’t mean a personal god. He didn’t mean a being who could listen to your prayers or forgive your sins. He just meant it as a kind of poetic word describing the deep unknowns, the deep uncertainties of the root of the universe. Then there are deists, who believe in a kind of god, a kind of personal god who set the universe going, a sort of physicist god, but then did no more, and certainly doesn’t listen to your thoughts, it has no personal interest in humans at all. I don’t think that I would use a word like “delusion,” certainly not for Einstein, and I don’t think I would for a deist either. But I think I reserve the word “delusion” for real theists, who actually think they talk to God, who think God talks to them.

Moderator: You have a very interesting description in The God Delusion of the Old Testament God. Do you want to give us that description, or will I give it to you back?

Dawkins: Well, have you got it in front of you?

Moderator: Yes I have.

Dawkins: Well, why don’t you read it out loud?

Moderator: Why not. You describe God as a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Dawkins: That seems fair enough to me.

Moderator: Okay. There are those who would think that that’s a little over the top.

Dawkins: Read your Old Testament if you think that. Just read it. Read Leviticus. Read Deuteronomy. Read Judges. Read Numbers. Read Exodus.

Moderator: And it is your contention that these elements of the god as described by yourself, have no helped matters in terms of global religion and the wars that go with it?

Dawkins: Well, not really, because no serious theologian takes the Old Testament literally anymore, so it isn’t quite like that. An awful lot of people think they take the Bible literally, but that can only be because they’ve never read it. If they ever read it they couldn’t possibly take it literally. But, I do think that people are a bit confused about where they get their morality from. A lot of people think they get their morality from the Bible because they can find a few good verses. Part of the Ten Commandments are okay, part of the Sermon on the Mount are okay. So they think they get their morality from the Bible. But actually, of course, nobody gets their morality from the Bible, we get it from somewhere else. And to the extent we can find goodness in the Bible, we cherry-pick them, we pick and choose them. We choose the good verses in the Bible and we reject the bad. Whatever criterion we use to choose the good verses and throw out the bad, that criterion is available to us anyway, whether we’re religious or not. Why bother to pick verses, why not just go straight for the morality?

Moderator: Do you think people who believe in God and religion generally – you used the analogy of the imaginary friend – do you think that the people who believe in God and religion are a little bit dim?

Dawkins: No, because many of them clearly are highly educated and score highly on IQ tests and things, so I can’t say . . .

Moderator: Why do they believe in something you think doesn’t exists?

Dawkins: Well, I think that people are sometimes remarkably adept at compartmentalizing their mind, separating their mind into two separate parts. There are some people who even manage to combine being apparently good working scientists with believing that the Book of Genesis is literally true and that the world is only 6,000 years old. If you can perform that level of double-think, then you can do anything.

Moderator: But they might say that they pity you, because you don’t believe in what they think is fundamentally true.

Dawkins: Well they might, and we’ll have to argue it out by looking at the evidence. The great thing is to argue it by looking at the evidence, not just to say, “oh well, this is my faith, there’s no argument to be had, you can’t argue with faith.”

Moderator: David Quinn, columnist at the Irish Independent, show us some evidence, please.

Quinn: Well, I mean the first thing I’d say is that Richard Dawkins is doing what he commonly does, which is he’s setting up strawmen. So he puts God, he puts believing God in the same category as believing in fairies. Well, you know, children stop believing in fairies when they stop being children, but they usually don’t stop believing in God, because belief in God, to my mind, is a much more rational proposition than to believe in fairies or Santa Claus.

Moderator: Do we have more proof that God exists than we do for fairies?

Quinn: I’ll come to that in a second, okay? I mean the second thing is about compartmentalizing yourself, and he uses examples of well, you’ve got intelligent people who somehow also believe the world is only 6,000 years old, and we have a young earth and we don’t believe in evolution. But again, that’s too stark and either/or, I mean there are many people who believe in God, but also believe in evolution and believe the world is 20 billion years old and believe fully in Darwinian evolution or whatever the case may be. Now, in all arguments about the existence or non-existence of God, I mean, often these things don’t even get off the launch pad because the two people debating can’t even agree on where the burden of proof rests – does it rest with those who are trying to proof the existence of God, or does it rest with those who are trying to disproof the existence of God. But I suppose if I bring this onto Richard Dawkins turf and we talk about the theory of evolution, the theory of evolution explains how matter, which we’re all made from, organized itself into, for example, highly complex beings like Richard Dawkins and Ryan Tubridy and other human beings, but what it doesn’t explain to give just one example is how matter came into being in the first place. That, in scientific terms, is a question that cannot be answered, and can only be answered, if it can be answered fully at all, by philosophers and theologians. It certainly can’t be answered by science. And the question of whether God exists or not cannot be answered fully by science either. And commonly, and a common mistake people can believe is, the scientist who speaks about evolution with all the authority of science can also speak about the existence of God with all the authority of science and of course he can. The scientist speaking about the existence of God, is actually engaged in philosophy and theology, but he certainly isn’t bringing to it the authority of science.

Moderator: Answer the original question – have you any evidence for it?

Quinn: Well, I would say the existence of matter itself. I would say the existence of morality. Myself and Richard Dawkins have a really different understanding of the origins of morality. I would say, free will. If you are an atheist, if you are an atheist, logically speaking, you cannot believe in objective morality. You cannot believe in free will. These are two things that the vast majority of humankind implicitly believe in. We believe, for example, that if a person carries out a bad action, we can call that person “bad” because we believe they are freely choosing those actions.

Moderator: Okay . . .

Quinn: An atheist believes we are controlled completely by our genes and have no free actions at all.

Moderator: What evidence do you have, Richard Dawkins, that you’re right?

Dawkins: I certainly don’t believe a word of that. I do not believe we’re controlled wholly by our genes. Let me go back to the really important thing Mr. Quinn said.

Quinn: How are we independent of our genes by your reckoning? What allows us to be independent of our genes? Where is this coming from?

Dawkins: Environment, for a start.

Quinn: But no, hang on, that also is a product of, if you like, matter, okay?

Dawkins: Yes, but it’s not genes.

Quinn: Yes, okay. But what part of us allows us to have free will?

Dawkins: Free will is a very difficult philosophical question and it’s not one that has anything to do with religion, contrary to what Mr. Quinn says.

Quinn: It has an awful lot to do with religion, because if there is no God there is no free will, because we are completely phenomenon.

Dawkins: Who says there is no free will if there’s no God? What a ridiculous thing to say.

Quinn: William Provine, for one, who you quote in your book. I have a quote here from him. Other scientists as well believe the same thing, that everything that goes on in our heads is a product of genes and, as you say, environment and chemical reactions. But there is no room for free will. And Richard, if you haven’t got to grips with that, and you seriously need to as many of your colleagues have, and they deny outright the existence of free will and they are hardened materialists like yourself.

Moderator: Okay, Richard Dawkins, rebut to that now, as you wish.

Dawkins: I’m not interested in free will. What I am interested in is the ridiculous suggestion that if science can’t say where the origin of matter came from, theology can. The origin of matter – the origin of the whole universe – is a very difficult matter. It’s one that scientists are working on, it’s one that they hope, eventually, to solve. Just as before Darwin, biology was a mystery, Darwin solved that, now cosmology is a mystery. The origin of the universe is a mystery. It’s a mystery to everyone. Physicists are working on it, they have theories, but if science can’t answer that question then as sure as hell theology can’t either.

Quinn: It is a perfectly reasonable proposition to ask yourself, “where does matter come from?” And it’s perfectly reasonable as well to posit the answer God created matter.

Dawkins: It’s not reasonable.

Quinn: And many reasonable people believer this. And by the way, it is quite a different category to say, look, we will study matter, and we will ask how matter organizes itself into particular forms and come up with the answer, evolution. It is quite another question to ask, “Where does matter come from to begin with?” And if you like, you must go outside of matter to answer that question and then you’re into philosophical and theological categories.

Dawkins: And how can it possibly be an answer to say “God did it” since you can’t explain where God came from?

Quinn: Because you must have an uncaused cause for anything at all to exist. Now I see in your book you put up an argument that I frankly find to be bogus. You come up with the idea of a mathematical infinite regress. But this does not apply to arguments about uncaused causes and unmoved movers because we’re not talking about math, we’re talking about existence, and existentially nothing exists unless you have an uncaused cause. And that uncaused cause, and that unmoved mover, is by definition God.

Dawkins: You just define God as that. You just define the problem out of existence. That’s no solution to the problem – you just evaded it.

Quinn: You can’t answer the question as to where matter comes from. You, as an atheist . . .

Dawkins: I can’t, but science is working on it. You can’t answer it either.

Quinn: It won’t come up with an answer. And you came up with the mystery argument that you accuse religious believers of doing all the time. You invoke the very first and most fundamental question about reality. You do not know where matter came from.

Dawkins: I don’t know. Science is working on it. Science is a progressive thing that’s working on it. You don’t know, but you claim that you do.

Quinn: I doubt if science . . . I claim to know the probable answer.

Moderator: Can I suggest that the next question is quite appropriate. The role of religion in wars [laughing]. When you think of the difficulty it bring up on a local level. Richard Dawkins, do you believe the world would be a safer place without religion?

Dawkins: Yes, I do. I don’t think religion is the only cause of wars. It’s very far from it. Neither The second world war nor the first world war were caused by religion. But I do think that religion is a major exacerbater, and especially in the world today, as a matter of fact.

Moderator: Okay, explain yourself.

Dawkins: Well, it’s pretty obvious. I mean, if you look at the Middle East, if you look at Indian and Pakistan, if you look at Northern Ireland. There are many, many places where the only basis for hostility that exists for rival factions who kill each other is religion.

Moderator: Why do you take it upon yourself to preach, if you like, atheism. There’s an interesting choice of words in some ways. You know, you’ve been accused of being something like a fundamental atheist, if you like, the high priest of atheism. Why go about your business in such a way that’s kind of, trying to disprove these things Why don’t you just believe in it privately, for example?

Dawkins: Well, fundamentalist is not quite the right word. A fundamentalist is one who believes in a holy book and believes that everything within that holy book is true. I am passionate about what I believe because I think there’s evidence for it. And I think it’s very different being passionate about evidence from being passionate about a holy book. So I do it because I care passionately about the truth – I really, really believe it’s a big question, it’s an important question whether there is a God at the root of the universe. I think it’s a question that matters, and I think that we need to discuss it, and that’s what I do.

Quinn: Ryan, if I could just say . . . I mean, Richard has come up with a definition of fundamentalism about this that suits him. He thinks a fundamentalist has to be someone who believes in a holy book. A fundamentalist is someone who firmly believes that they have got the truth, and holds that to an extreme extent and become intolerant of those who hold to a different truth. And Richard Dawkins has just outlined what he thinks the truth to be. And it makes him intolerant of those who have religious beliefs. Now in terms of the effect of religion upon the world, at least Richard has rightly acknowledged that there are many causes of war and strife and ill will in the world. And he mentions World War I and World War II. In his book, he tries to get neatly off the hook of having atheism blamed for, for example, the atrocities carried out by Josef Stalin and saying that these have nothing particularly to do with atheism. But Stalin and many Communists who are explicitly atheistic took the view that religion was precisely this sort of malign and evil force that Richard Dawkins thinks it is. And they set out from that premise to, if you like, inflict upon religion sort of their own version of a Final Solution. They set to eradicate it from the Earth through violence and also through education that was explicitly anti-religious. And under the Soviet Union, and in China, and under Pol Pot in Cambodia, explicit and violent efforts were made to suppress religion on the grounds that religion was a wicked force and We have the Truth, and Our Truth would not admit religion into the picture at all because we believe religion to be an untruth. So atheism can also lead to fundamentalist violence and did so in the last century Atheism . . .

Dawkins: Stalin . . .

Moderator: Richard Dawkins, we’ll let Richard in there. Richard.

Dawkins: Stalin was a very, very bad man, and his persecution of religion was a very, very bad thing. End of story. It’s nothing to do with the fact that he was an atheist. We can’t just compile lists of bad people who were atheists and lists of bad people who were religious. I’m afraid there are plenty on both sides.

Quinn: Yes, but Richard, you’re always compiling lists of bad religious people. I mean, you do it continually in all your books, and then you devote a paragraph to basically trying to absolve atheism of all blame for any atrocity throughout history. You cannot have it both ways.

Dawkins: I deny that.

Quinn: But of course you do it. I mean, every time you were on a program and talking about religion, you bring up the atrocities committed in the name of religion. And then you try to minimize the atrocities committed by atheists because they were so anti-religious, and because they regarded it as a malign force in much the same way you do. You are trying to have it both ways.

Dawkins: Well, I simply deny that. I do think that there’s some evil is faith, because faith in belief in something without evidence.

Quinn: But that’s not what faith is. You see, that’s a caricature and a strawman and is so typical. But that is not what faith is. You have faith that God doesn’t exist.

Dawkins: What is faith?

Quinn: Wait a second. You have faith that God doesn’t exist. You are a man of faith as well.

Dawkins: I do not. I have looked at the evidence.

Quinn: I’ve looked at the evidence too.

Dawkins: If someone comes up with evidence that goes the other way, I’ll be the first to change my mind.

Quinn: Well, I think the very existence of matter is evidence. And remember, you’re the man who has problems believing in free will that you try very conveniently to shunt to one side.

Dawkins: I’m just not interested in free will. It’s not a big question for me.

Quinn: It’s a vast question because we cannot be considered morally responsible beings unless we have free will. We do everything because we are controlled by our genes or our environment. It’s a vital question.

Moderator: We are coming to the point at which we kind of pretty much began, which is probably an appropriate time at which to end the debate. Richard Hawkins, Dawkins, excuse me, good to talk to you again, thank you for your time. And to you, David Quinn, columnist at the Irish Independent, thank you very much indeed for that.

Atheist vs Atheist

October 18, 2006 | 50 Comments

“Devout Catholic” Stephen Colbert vs Richard Dawkins, on the Colbert Report last night:

Colbert: My guest tonight is a scientist who argues that there is no God. Well you know what *he’ll have an eternity in hell to prove it!

Please welcome . . . Richard Dawkins!

Thank you for coming on . . . I’m so excited to have you . . . I have to admit, I thought I was getting Daryl Dawkins.

Dawkins: [Laughs, puzzled].

Colbert:Chocolate Thunder . . . I’m not sure if you’re familiar with . . . ah, no,
okay..

Dawkins: Usually they say they were expecting a man in wheelchair who can’t talk.

Colbert: Oh.

Dawkins: They confuse me with Stephen Hawkins.

Colbert: Stephen Hawkins. Oh, Stephen Hawkins. Okay. Is he going to hell, too?

Dawkins: I reckon so.

Colbert: Yeah, maybe so, maybe so . . . God doesn’t like black holes. Alright. Um. Your book started off great, okay? It’s got a shiny silver cover, and I can see my face in it.

But after that, I got pretty upset, okay? You say that God is . . . it’s called “The God Delusion.” Alright, and you say that there is no God. That God is a myth, and that religion is corrosive.

Dawkins: Well, I say that God is very, very improbable. You can’t actually disprove God . . .

Colbert: RIGHT!! ‘Cause He exists! No matter how much you fight, there’s still a little bit of Him left.

Dawkins: You can’t disprove anything. You can’t disprove the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you can’t disprove Thor with his hammer, you can’t disprove Zeus, or Poseidon . . .

Colbert: Oh, those are Pagan Gods. They don’t exist.

Dawkins: Yeah, that’s right.

Colbert: They don’t exist.

Dawkins: You’re an atheist about all those Gods . . . everybody here’s an atheist about all those Gods. Some of us just go one God further.

Colbert: Wow. Bold.

Alright, so let’s hear it. There is no God . . . our belief in Him is a delusion . . . the world and the universe was created by a series of random acts . . .

Dawkins: Oh, no no no.

Colbert: . . . we’re all just monkeys and we should fornicate and throw our feces.

Dawkins: Well, you’re right. That’s up to you.

Colbert: Those are your greatest hits, right? I’ve encapsulated the book basically right there, right?

Dawkins: It’s up to you. But you mustn’t say that it’s all due to random chance. That’s the one thing it isn’t. Because Darwinian natural selection is the exact opposite of random chance. It’s a highly non-random process. The big thing that everybody misunderstands about Darwinism is that they think it’s chance, they think it’s an accident. It’s not an accident.

Colbert: It’s too complex for us to perceive . . . you know, it’s like, I know a Pachinko machine isn’t an accident either, there’s a reason why it bounces from nail to nail, but it looks random to me, right?

Dawkins: Nothing in nature looks random. Nothing in nature looks random.

Colbert: I want you to address my Pachinko analogy.

Dawkins: I’ve never even heard of it. What is that?

Colbert: Never heard of Pachinko? Oh, it’s like Japanese pinball.

Dawkins: Okay.

Colbert: They’re great. They make pornographic versions of it over there.

Dawkins: We call it bagatelle.

Colbert: Bagatelle?

Dawkins: Yeah.

Colbert: Who, biologists or English people?

Dawkins: English people.

Colbert: Okay. Alright.

Um, obviously I’ve already played my hand here. I believe in God. And you don’t believe in God. So I’ve got that on you. So this is kind of unfair, because God’s on my side in this argument. But 95% of Americans believe that there is a God, okay? So doesn’t that disprove your argument, or else you don’t believe in democracy.

Dawkins: Well . . .

Colbert: Really . . . the people have spoken.

Dawkins: Democracy is fine for policy, but democracy is no good for science. You’d never . . .

Colbert: Oh, I’d disagree. I’d say the President would disagree also.

Dawkins: Well, you’ve got a point there. I have to give you that. You’re right
there.

Colbert: Now you’re not a big fan of intelligent design either, I’m imagining.

Dawkins: I’m a very big fan of intelligent design for for man-made things, but I’m not a big fan of intelligent design for natural things.

Colbert: What do you mean? What’s the difference between those things? Aren’t we natural? We’re part of that natural order of things.

Dawkins: Yeah, that’s right. There’s no intelligent design in the natural order of things. There’s plenty of intelligent design in computers, and cars, and telephones, they’re all intelligently designed. And we are so stupid that we think that just because telephones and computers and cars are intelligently designed, that means we are too. Well, they’re not. And . . .

Colbert: Well, I’m more complex that my computer.

Dawkins: You certainly are.

Colbert: Right, so how could I be here . . . I mean . . . it’s either . . .

Dawkins: Well I’ll tell you . . .

Colbert: I’m lost. I’m lost. I’m lost. It hurts when I think. See, if I just think that God just (clapping hands) did it, that I can understand.

Dawkins: And who just did God, then?

Colbert: God is outside of time.

Dawkins: Ahhh . . . that’s so easy. You get away with that . . .

Colbert: No, it’s hard, it makes my brain sore.

Dawkins: . . . you can get away with that, and then you can explain anything.

Colbert: I can’t explain anything.

Dawkins: I can explain it. I can explain it by saying you get to complex things like you, by slow, gradual degrees. And that’s the only, ultimate explanation that will work. You can’t just suddenly magic complex things like God, into existence.

Colbert: But, if this is intelligent design, like say your book is intelligently
designed . . .

Dawkins: It is, by the way.

Colbert: . . . but the universe is not intelligently designed, then you’re saying the universe just naturally came into existence, continues existence, through natural laws of nature, through physics, thermodynamics, the laws of gravity and energy, produced you, eventually, and then through you produced this book that proves that it has no natural intelligent design.

Dawkins: Okay, let’s take that step by step.

Colbert: Oh, I don’t think we have time for step by step. You can either surrender or we can go.

Dawkins: You were right as far as when you got on to life. Life’s a very special thing. Life starts naturally, and then it increases in complex by slow, gradual degrees, that’s Darwinian natural selection.

Colbert: That’s because God breathed into it.

Dawkins: Oh no. That’s at best a superfluous hypothesis, and at worse, a highly unparsimonious one.

Colbert: Do both of those mean that you surrender? We’ve got to go, I’m sorry.
Richard Dawkins, thank you so much for being my guest .. The book is The God Delusion.

Who won?

Philosophically Speaking

October 17, 2006 | 30 Comments

Is atheism a philosophical belief? Professor Myers of Pharyngula says not exactly:

Atheism is not a philosophical belief. It is a consequence of a philosophical belief, I will grant you that: it is a philosophy that says evidence, observation, and a logical chain of reasoning are important, as is a healthy skepticism.

Myers also rejects at the “implied false equivalence of calling both atheism and religion “philosophies.”

What distinction Myers is making between a philosophical belief and a mere consequence thereof is not clear. Plainly what is contained in Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification is philosophy. Discussions of the definition of the word “God”; of which definitions are meaningful, consistent or contradictory; of the merits of the teleological, ontological and cosmological and other alleged proofs constitute philosophy. And consequently, as one of Myer’s readers maintained, theism must be a philosophical position as well.

But this does not imply an equivalence of atheism of theism, anymore than claiming “atheism” and “theism” are equivalent because they are both words. That Myers considers theism to be false doesn’t strip it of its philosophical content. Solipsism may too be false, but the question of how an individual can know that there are other minds outside his own presents a significant philosophical, if not practical, difficulty. Relying solely on the truth-value of a statement to determine whether it falls within the ambit of philosophy is unphilosophical. Reaching a false conclusion with good reasons more resembles philosophy than asserting a true one with no reasons. Calling a proposition “philosophy” merely because one believes it is often little more than an attempt to cash in on the perceived cache of the word; whatever the merits of the statements made by “feminist philosophy” or “black philosophy” and other ethnic philosophies, their content is largely anthropological, sociological or political.

The problem may be with what Myers identifies as philosophy, i.e., something which values not only reason but evidence, observation, etc. I think he is really contending that the God-question is primarily a question of science rather than philosophy. Richard Dawkins (the original focus of Myers’ post) seems to be of that view. In discussing the ontological argument in The God Delusion, he expresses “an automatic, deep suspicion of any line of reasoning that reache[s] such a significant conclusion [God] without feeding in a single piece of data from the real world . . . perhaps that indicates no more than that I am a scientist rather than a philosopher.”

Myers may also be focussed on revealed theology (derived from scripture) rather than natural theology. I would agree that the latter is not philosophy (except to the extent the scriptures state philosophical propositions). But for the most part, that aspect of religion is taught as religion, not philosophy.

Plane Crash Sends Message to “Cat in the Hat” Victim

October 14, 2006 | 43 Comments

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

In what some are viewing as more than a coincidence, the plane which crashed into a Manhattan building Wednesday destroyed the bedroom of a woman who was injured in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade accident nearly a decade ago.

Kathleen Caronna — who spent weeks in a coma in 1997 after being struck by a lamppost dislodged by the Cat in the Hat balloon — was out of her apartment when the plane carrying New York Yankees ballplayer Cory Lidle deposited its engine in her apartment and sent the bedroom up in flames.

The odds against two highly-publicized incidents afflicting the same person are so high that there is speculation that Ms. Caronna’s fate was beyond mere happenstance.

“Obviously, Cory Lidle was trying to send her a message,” said Susan Hoskins, who lives in a neighboring building. “Sadly, his death means we’ll never know what it was.”

Other disagreed, noting that the recently-traded pitcher did not know Caronna and had no motive to contact her. “The hand of a far more powerful being was behind this,” said local merchant Jim McGregor. “George Steinbrenner did this for a reason.”

Getting Nowhere

October 13, 2006 | 26 Comments

“You can’t get there from here.” So says Zeno’s paradox, which proves that you can never walk across the room because you have to pass halfway to the finish an infinite number of times. Supposedly the problem is solved by reference to calculus and the summing of infinitesimals (although that still doesn’t explain how people who don’t know higher math manage to walk all the way across the room).

The atheistic response to the First Cause Argument is usually “Who made God?” Bertrand Russell, in Why I Am Not a Christian, thought it was a good answer, and concluded that “[t]here is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all.”

Not that if you did get to a beginning what you’d find there would necessarily be God — a conclusion which requires additional arguments and inferences. But the force of “who made God” objection isn’t that. Rather, it’s closer to point made by Zeno, that infinity is too far to go. In other words, you can’t get there from here.

And on that level, I think it fails for the same reason the paradox fails. You simply can walk across the room, no matter how many infinities you have to traverse. However logical the paradox appears in theory, it’s simply ridiculous in practice.

Much Ado

October 10, 2006 | 24 Comments

For reading a Bible at lunch, Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School seventh-grader Amber Mangum allegedly got threatened with disciplinary action by a school employee. So the twelve-year old is suing. The head of a leading skeptic’s groups is skeptical:

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said most of the time, “right-wing groups” that file lawsuits “exaggerate what happened in school, and that is usually brought out later in the case.”

“What probably happened is this kid, I’ll bet you, was being disruptive. I bet this kid was proselytizing, was preaching, doing something that was annoying other kids and was told to stop. Kids don’t normally want to read the Bible at lunch time — I don’t care who they are. It’s just not something kids want to do,” said Johnson.

The Friendly Atheist (f/k/a eBay Atheist) finds this response impolitic. He suggests Ms. Johnson should have refrained from speculating about what happened and simply expressed support for Amber’s right to read.

Johnson’s suggestion that no kids ever voluntarily read the Bible is bizarre. But reading the complaint, filed by the Rutherford Institute, one does get the impression that something fishy is going on. The basis of suit is not so much that the school seriously intends to prohibit Bible reading, but that it failed to respond quickly enough to a note complaining about the incident. The note was delivered to the principal’s office on September 20th, and the suit was filed just two weeks later, on October 4th.

Which seems to be jumping the gun, given the confusion obviously caused by the note. It unambiguously identified Vice Principal Jeanette Rainey as the rights-violating villain, an accusation repeated by the Washington Post and other news sources. But according to the complaint, “plaintiff [Amber’s mother] alleges, on information and belief, that Amber was mistaken in her identification and the person who gave her the order was not Vice Principal Rainey.”

So after sending the note the plaintiffs had sufficient contact with the school to satisfy themselves that Amber’s perception of things was a bit off. I’m guessing that Ms. Rainey denied the accusation and the school figured that would be the end of the matter, given that the plaintiffs believed her. Did the plaintiffs follow-up with the principal’s office and inquire whether, assuming it was some lunchlady who had given the directive, it was official school policy? Apparently they thought litigation would be a simpler way to discover the answer than a phone call.

Who’s Driving?

October 9, 2006 | 44 Comments

Does religion dictate moral beliefs, or vice versa?

On the one hand, there’s the argument that people take a moral position because it is required by scriptures or otherwise derivable from the logic of the religion’s doctrines. Those who view a particular religion as dangerous (whether from the perspective of atheism or from that of a different faith) may reason that the peril stems from the fact that the underlying theological premises are false. Accordingly, they contend that the best way to lead humanity to a moral utopia is to attempt to refute the particular belief.

On the other hand, there’s the view that people embrace (or create) a faith to reflect their pre-existing moral inclinations. A related argument holds that some people (particularly politicians) don’t really believe in their religion, but are merely using it to justify the particular position they wish to promote. Whichever is the case, attacking the religion won’t do much good — it’s either just a by-product of, or cover for, the moral agenda which is driving it.

Which scenario do you believe is most common — one in which a person derives morality from religion, or religion from morality? Do you think that atheism is ever the creator (or consequence) of moral views?

a+b^n)/n = x

October 6, 2006 | 46 Comments

Atheists disbelieve in God for different reasons. Some focus on the alleged lack of scientific or observational evidence. Some dismiss the concept as impossible as a matter of pure logic. Others rely on a mix of both types of argument.

However, few atheists have considered every disproof. Disbelievers tend to specialize, finding a pet argument or two (i.e., the existence of evil, the perceived conflict between omnipotence and omniscience) so persuasive that they find it unnecessary to explore others. Similarly, atheists frequently specialize in a particular type of god with a particular definition. Accordingly, two disbelievers who say “God does not exist” may be denying two entirely different things — just like two people who say “Paul Simon does not exist” (the musician does, the Senator doesn’t).

Additionally, many atheists do not rely on actual disproofs of God. Instead, they base their disbelief on the perceived flaws in theistic proofs (teleological, ontological, cosmological, etc.), even though the mere failure of such proofs does not resolve the matter. For example, there were thousands of flawed proofs of Fermat’s Last Theorem — including the first version of the proof that was finally successful — but proving such flaws did not negate the truth of the ultimate mathematical proposition.

In the same way, an atheist may disbelieve as a result of relying on faulty disproofs. For every flawed proof of God, there is likely a corresponding bad disproof as well. In debating with Diderot the mathematician Euler may have been foolish to argue “Sir, (a+bn)/n = x; hence God exists,” but Diderot would be have been equally foolish to retort “a+bn ≠c x; hence God does not exist” (and Richard Dawkins, on page 84 of The God Delusion, may have been equally foolish to believe in the existence of the Euler/Diderot debate).

Finally, many atheists disbelieve for reasons completely unrelated to evidence or disproofs. Dispensing with consideration of the philosophical issues, some atheists focus on motives and simply dismiss religion as a meme or a method of controlling the masses. Others reject God because the concept it embraced by their political enemies, or because of the wrongdoing and hypocrisy of many religious believers.

The observations made above can of course be applied to the world of believers. The faithful believe in different gods with different definitions, and each person may rely on only a small number of flawed, incomplete or irrelevant arguments. Some will even argue that arguments are irrelevant to the question of God (although apparently not to the question of the relevance of argumentation).

The result of all this, I believe, is that the public debate on religion is dominated by flawed, irrelevant or partial arguments on both sides. Whatever the truth is, the controversy resembles the apocryphal Euler/Diderot duel more than anything else. Each side applauds the expression the preferred result — God or not — regardless of the reasoning behind it, and regardless of whether the disputants are even discussing the same thing.

The Great Divides

October 5, 2006 | 36 Comments

In the faith wars, the battle lines can be drawn in different places. The most important distinction for many is between theism and atheism. Both sides of the question may see the gulf as unbridgeable. Those on the religious side often feel that their differences with other faiths pale when compared to their differences with the godless. Similarly, atheists who might quarrel over the best reasons for disbelief view the religious as a separate species. The Pledge of Allegiance controversy especially polarized believers and disbelievers of this mindset, with each group highly offended over the perceived slight to their worldview. Atheists of this persuasion generally view believers as unintelligent or deluded; the believers see the atheists as immoral and rebellious.

A second line exists between absolutists and ecumenicists. Absolutists, whether believers or atheists, are galled by the suggestion that all beliefs regarding religion are equal. Their greatest contempt is not necessarily for those on the opposite side of the God-question, but for those who profess there are many ways up the mountain. The ecumenicists do not hold the particular tenets of their faiths as essential and hold harmony as a greater virtue than consistency. The developing storm over The Faith Club — a book by a Christian, Jew and Muslim — highlights this division. Albert Mohler has a perceptive essay written from the absolutist end of the spectrum. You can also listen to him discuss The Club it here (and stay tuned for his subsequent discussion of Dawkins’ The God Delusion).

Which distinction is more important to you?

Not So Simple

October 4, 2006 | 64 Comments

Theologians frequently argue that the probability of life arising out of chance is as small as a Boeing 747 resulting from a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard. The underlying reasoning, as Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion, is “that it takes a big smart fancy thing to make a lesser thing . . . [that] [y]ou’ll never see a spear making a spear-maker . . . [y]ou’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith.” Dawkins has a simple retort; “However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable . . . [f]ar from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.” God, he says, “is the Ultimate Boeing 747.”

Dawkins asserts that the improbability problem is remedied by an assumption that things progress from simple to complex rather than vice versa. “[N]atural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces . . . [e]ach of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so.” He faults those who rely on design for focusing narrowly on the complex end products as if they were spontaneously created — which would be “very, very improbable” — and of failing to understand “the power of accumulation” of small improbabilities.

Putting aside the question of what “probability” does or could mean for either side of the debate, I fail to see why smaller-to-bigger is a more sustainable conclusion. Certainly no one accepts that proposition with respect the origin of the universe that ultimately gave rise to life. It did not start out as single marble in the middle of nowhere and adapt itself into something bigger. It did not start out as a single grain of sand, or a single hydrogen atom, and grow more complicated from that. Perhaps the universe was once infinitesimally small, but as a speck it was not a simple speck like a sand-grain or an atom. It was the most complex thing ever. It contained within it all the spring and coils and gears and laws necessary to bring things to where they are today. It contained the formula for consciousness and life and love and something about its composition made it inevitable that they would all come into being. And unless that speck arose spontaneously out of a vacuum (an improbability which I assume Dawkins rejects) it must have existed forever.

Faith in Numbers

October 3, 2006 | 57 Comments

Three squared plus four squared equals five squared (9+16=25). The mathematician Euclid proved that there are an infinite number of these Pythagorean triples, i.e., sets consisting of three integers wherein the square of one of the numbers is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two.

This doesn’t work, however, when you’re working with cubes. There isn’t an infinite number of sets of triplets — there’s not even one. Play around all you want, you won’t ever be able to find two cubed numbers which, when added together, equal a third. Five cubed (125) plus six cubed (216) equals 341 and thus comes pretty close to seven cubed (343), but that’s as close as it ever gets. As it turns out, the problem isn’t just with cubes. If you’re raising pairs of numbers to any power equal or higher to three and then adding them together, the sum will never be precisely equal to a third number raised to that power. In other words (or symbols) an+bn ≠cn where n>2. It doesn’t matter whether n is 4 or 81,122,212,183 or 2,654,059,139,565,867,038,254,524,039,331,751 or anything up to infinity.

In 1637, the mathematician Fermat claimed that he had “a truly marvelous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” In fact, he probably didn’t. Fermat’s Last Theorem wasn’t solved until 1995 and Andrew Wiles’ solution required 150 pages of complex 20th century mathematical techniques including a proof of the Taniyama Shimura theorem. You’ll never understand the summary of the reasoning, much less the proof itself. Not even Wiles did, at first — he announced the solution in 1993 but backed down after some (later-repaired) flaws were identified.

Is your belief in the non-existence of a Fermat triplet mere faith? If you are an atheist, would you say that your disbelief in God involves more faith or less faith than your believe in the truth of Fermat’s Theorem? Is your certainty regarding the truth of the proof is greater or lesser than your belief regarding the existence of God? How about your belief in the truth of Euler’s yet-unproven conjecture that there are no four integers such that a4+b4+c4=d4?

How About You?

October 1, 2006 | 127 Comments

Would an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being have bothered to create you, and if not, why not?

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