Thursday, December 27, 2012

A BIT DRAFTY

"In Belfast, I have seen whole streets burned out by sectarian warfare between different sects of Christianity, and interviewed people whose relatives and friends have been kidnapped and killed or tortured by rival religious death squads, often for no other reason than membership of another confession. There is an old Belfast joke about the man stopped at a roadblock and asked his religion. When he replies that he is an atheist he is asked, 'Protestant or Catholic atheist?' I think this shows how the obsession has rotted even the legendary local sense of humor. In any case, this did actually happen to a friend of mine and the experience was decidedly not an amusing one.'
--Christopher Hitchens, author "god is Not Great"





Recently Piers Morgan interviewed Pastor Rick Warren, and true to form, Morgan brought up gay marriage and how the Bible, just like the Constitution, may require amendments. As you can see in the clip below, Warren responded with the usual sound bites brandished by many Evangelical Christians: "I do not believe the Bible is flawed", "Opinion changes but truth doesn't" and so on. But Warren, and Todd Starnes of Fox News, missed what Morgan was trying to say.


In fact, many Christians, like Morgan, are coming to hold the view that the Bible is more allegorical than literal and as such should not be taken as a document of infallible truth. So, despite what Fox News says about Morgan's liberal views, they cannot escape the fact that he is still a Christian, and that this argument is not one of Christianity vs Socialism or Atheism or whatever else they decide to villainize, but a difference of interpretation between two Christians using the same holy book.

Well, as you might have guessed, this doctrinal quarrel is spilling over to social media, where some people are commenting on how disappointing and sad Morgan's views are. Some have even started a petition to deport Morgan for his anti 'Merican ways (completely ignoring his right to free speech, which as Morgan points out is an AMENDMENT to the Constitution).

Perhaps the most surprising thing of all for me has been the negative response by Mormons. You see, unlike most Protestant Christians, Mormons actually teach that the Bible is only partially correct, as indicated in their Articles of Faith:

"8 We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly;"

So, why would Mormons be upset by Morgan's comment? It seems as though their scriptures agree with him! But wait, there's more; the whole idea that Joseph Smith needed to bring about the Book of Mormon is based on the very notion that the Bible is flawed.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Bible can tell you that the New Testament has had hundreds of years of editorial work, having gone through countless transcriptions, translations and revisions. The Old Testament has been going through the same process, but for thousands of years. Therefore, even if one holds that the Bible is inspired by god, it is still reasonable to postulate that there may at least be errors in translation. Why else would there be so many translations today? Ultimately, all that Morgan is calling for is a revision of a possible clerical error. Christians can't even agree on which version of the Bible is correct, so, how is Morgan's comment insulting?

For me, all of this is irrelevant to Morgan's original comment about allowing gays the right to marry since we do not based our laws on what the Bible says. Morgan is right about the Constitution requiring the occasional amendment (as foreseen by the founding fathers), but as far as the Bible is concerned, I don't see how revising an ancient book which advocates Bronze-Age morality is even necessary.










BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is the Atheist Experience on the history of the Bible:

Sunday, December 23, 2012

DOWN WITH THE SICKNESS

"Why, if god was the creator of all things, were we supposed to 'praise' him so incessantly for doing what came to him naturally? This seemed servile, apart from anything else. If Jesus could heal a blind person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness? What was so wonderful about his casting out devils, so that the devils would enter a herd of pigs instead? That seemed sinister: more like black magic."
--Christopher Hitchens, author "god is Not Great"





I have already criticized Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses for denying medical treatment for religious reasons, and frankly, most religious people seem to agree with me that it is both ridiculous and dangerous to do so. But there is still much work to be done in the treatment of mental illness as well as therapy and counseling, as many churches still claim to have spiritual remedies for these things. I'm not even talking about shams like reparative therapy for homosexuals; I'm talking about things like demonic possession (or as doctors call it: schizophrenia and dissociation), marriage counseling, and even anorexia.

My work has some interesting opportunities and among my responsibilities is to work with teenage girls, many of whom have body image issues. Typically, when a girl is struggling with a food disorder we put her on "tray watch" and basically force her to eat a proper amount of food as outlined by her dietitian. This is all well and good while in treatment, but often times they fall back on old habits once they leave. For most of these girls, food disorders will be a constant struggle for the rest of their lives, in much the same way that a recovering alcoholic never really gets over their desire to drink, even if they are sober for many years. This is the nature of addiction.

Now, many religious people realize that health professionals are the best consultants for these kinds of things, but every once in a while I come across someone who thinks that the only way to overcome things like addiction or food disorders is through a belief in god. Not just any god, but their particular god. Case in point, I recently read an article on "The World's Thinnest Woman" which describes the tragic story of a 5ft 8in middle-aged woman who weighs about 60lbs. In the comment section, I found a comment which disturbed me:

"Ow My God , i can imagine this women must suffer a lot, i live even in this area if one day i have the opportunity to see her, i will just say her that Jesus can make something for her and if people are bad sometimes God is still good and loves his kids however they can be, as its my work to spread the words of God, he is still making miracle all over the world right now.
I will include prayer for this lady me and my ministries for this lady , i believe she will recover soon just accepting Jesus ad Lord and Savior." [emphasis added]

This "minister" clearly does not understand food disorders, which are psychological in nature. Their advice that she just needs to accept Jesus in order to overcome her illness is insulting, since a) she probably already is a Christian, given her place of birth, b) if believing in Jesus really was the cure for anorexia, then Christians should never struggle with it, and c) "b" is a testable claim which, if verified, would change modern medicine and the discoverer of this remedy would likely win a Nobel Prize.

The woman in the article is reported to have seen up to 30 specialists, which is an impressive number, to be sure. However, no information is given about the programs she has used, or where they were located, but given that she is a Russian native, I can imagine what they were like, since I lived in Eastern Europe for two years and I have some idea as to the quality of health care in that area of the world. Suffice it to say, even the office plants were sickly.

My educated opinion is that she would benefit greatly from any number of programs in the US. She will continue to fight her illness for the rest of her life, but with a program utilizing the very best medical care she would likely gain some headway.

It is common for people to go to church leadership for advice on various issues. In cases where the person just needs a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on, this is very often sufficient for them to feel better about their circumstances. They might even recieve some useful bit of information. But at times, as the comment above would suggest, religious learders overstep their level of expertise (which is usually none) and offer religious counsel when they should be referring a medical professional.

Lastly, about a month ago I witnessed my first demonic possession. A couple of weeks later I witnessed my second. In both cases, nothing supernatural actually occurred. There was no super human strength, voice of the devil or spewing of bile. In fact, there was a very clear psychological explanation for these events: dissociation, which is similar to Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka multiple personalities). But it is easy to imagine how primitive peoples with no understanding of psychology might think it really was a demon.



BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is Penn and Teller on Exorcisms (Explicit):

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Friday, December 21, 2012

CRIME SANS VICTIMS

"Indeed, what is startling about the notion of a victimless crime is that even when the behavior in question is genuinely victimless, its criminality is still affirmed by those who are eager to punish it. It is in such cases that the true genius lurking behind many of our laws stands revealed. The idea of a victimless crime is nothing more than a judicial reprise of the Christian notion of sin."
--Sam Harris, author "The End of Faith"




What happens when someone uses science incorrectly? First, it has the potential to mislead people. Second, it opens the floodgates of scrutiny.

Now, I don't read the newspaper often, but I am aware that some newspapers are politically, and in some cases religiously biased. For instance, I have heard a number of my more conservative friends and family bash the New York Times for being too liberal or progressive. This may be true of the opinions shared in the paper, but I don't think anyone has shown the NY Times completely and utterly misusing science. This is, however, something which the Deseret News (a pro-Mormon newspaper in Utah) has been caught doing recently.

The headline from an article published yesterday reads: "Link found between porn use and supporting same-sex marriage". The article itself shamelessly and inaccurately tries to show how support for gay marriage "may be, at least in part, a byproduct of regular exposure to diverse and graphic sex acts." In other words, if you watch porn, you will start to favor gay marriage, two things which the Mormon Church has spent countless time and money fighting against, perhaps more so than any other social issues.

This article is intended to strike fear and alarm in the minds of faithful, chaste and not the least bit perverse Mormons. What better way to scapegoat one condemned activity than by "linking" it to another? Why not apply this to other things, while we are at it? Masturbation is linked to bank robbing, and swearing is linked to stabbing puppies in the eyes with rusty soldering irons on Christmas Eve. See? It's easy.

Well, the claim is so outrageous and fallacious and completely unfounded by any actual science that some rather clever people have been issuing responses to the article, such as "Link Found Between Pedophilia and Reading the Deseret News". This blog response has some good points and useful links which show how the Deseret News is as bad at social science as they are at moral crusades.

One point the blog makes, which occurred to me as I read the news article, is that Utah has the highest porn use per household in the US (interestingly, porn use goes down temporarily on Sundays). This means that if the hypothesis is true that viewing pornography changes your views to be in favor of gay marriage, then Utah should also be at the forefront of the gay marriage movement. But, as anyone who is the least bit familiar with California's Proposition 8 can tell you, Utahns (at least Mormons) vehemently and monetarily oppose gay marriage. So, which is it, Deseret News?

There is one thing in common between porn and gay marriage which I can think of, and that is that both are opposed exclusively for religious reasons. All arguments against homosexuality and pornography seem to come from religions and their own moral codes. Ultimately, I don't have a problem with them denying science in order to condemn whatever they want. But I do have a big problem when they try to legislate against such things for people not of their religion. It is wrong and immoral to do so.



On a lighter note, today I came across a site which outlines the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide. Note: everything they say is scientifically verifiable, if a little exaggerated.


BONUS MATERIAL:

And here is Penn and Teller on the War on Porn (warning: very explicit):

Part 1


Part 2

Thursday, December 20, 2012

SUBTLE TEASE

So, I just got back from a company party (with wall to wall trampolines), and a couple was talking about a dilemma they were in: whether to go see The Hobbit or go to the (Mormon) Temple. To which I chimed in, "Look at it this way, how long will The Hobbit be in theatres? And how long will temples be around?" After 2 seconds of delicious awkwardness, all the guys laughed and the wife said, while holding back laughter, "That's a horrible way to look at it." I think I just inspired her next Sacrament Meeting talk.

Little do they know...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

APOCALYPSE NOW-ISH

This is all I'm going to post about the Mayan calendar ending this Friday (12/21/12), seeing how it is so ridiculous (warning: explicit):

Part 1


Part 2


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I?

"If you read Hawking on the 'event horizon,' that theoretical lip of the 'black hole' over which one could in theory plunge and see the past and the future (except that one would, regrettably and by definition, not have enough 'time'), I shall be surprised if you can still go on gaping at Moses and his unimpressive 'burning bush.'"
--Christopher Hitchens, author "god Is Not Great"






Some people have criticized certain authors of books attacking religion as being unscholarly in their research. By this they usually mean these authors should only present information, rather than taking a side on a controversial issue. This is the case in William J. Hamblin's review of "god Is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens.

Hamblin claims that Hitchens's "dogmatic assertions" are due to a lack of looking at what the other side has to say about things like the historicity of the account of the Exodus of Moses: "These narratives can be "easily discarded" by Hitchens only because he has failed to do even a superficial survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions." Notice that he doesn't refute what Hitchens claimed, he only says that there is another side to the discussion. But does the fact that Hitchens has an opinion, even a strong one, indicate that he is unaware of the opposition? Does the existence of an opposing view mean that it is the least bit credible or noteworthy?

The fact is, Hitchens and other atheist authors are not usually Biblical scholars, and as such they rely on the credibility of people who know what they are talking about, in much the same way that I rely on experts of Evolution. But this does not mean that Hitchens or I do not do our own research to form an educated opinion on these subjects, or that our opinions are of no merit. We may not be experts, but have read what the experts have said, and we have made decisions based on the information they provide.

The funny thing about Hamblin's rebuttal is that even if he was completely correct and Hitchens was completely wrong about the historical events in the Bible, it still offers absolutely zero credibility to the supernatural claims. Even if there really was a Moses who freed the Israelites from captivity, it says nothing about parting the Red Sea, or god delivering Manna from heaven.

Likewise, even if Jesus really did exist, this wouldn't mean that he performed miracles. We could take this even further, and say that even if Jesus really did perform miracles, like healing the sick and raising the dead, to say that such things could only be done by the Son of God and that this is proof of his divinity is still an argument from ignorance, since you haven't shown how he did these things.

So, what do actual experts have to say about Biblical and religious claims? Here is a seminar by Dr Richard Carrier discussing some of the things I mentioned above, and he basically puts Christians to shame:


BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is Hitchens talking about his book, the historicity of Jesus vs Socrates, and proving religion through miracles:


Saturday, December 15, 2012

WAY OF THE MISTER

So Brian Dalton (aka Mr Deity) was once a Mormon. John Dehlin (still a Mormon (so he says...)) runs a group called "Mormon Stories", which interviews various people who have struggled with Mormon theology, culture or history, some of whom have left the church. A while ago I came across a Mormon Stories podcast where Mr Dehlin interviewed Mr Deity:


More recently (like, two days ago) I came across a second video from Mormon Stories of Mr Deity speaking at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium (Sunstone was sort of a predecessor to mormonthink.com). This video is fantastic. It includes back stories to some of the Mr Deity videos and even live performances by Mr Deity and Lucy. Enjoy!

Friday, December 14, 2012

SECURITY BLANKET

"I know there are some who disagree and I respect their point of view but I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
--Richard Mourdock, Indiana State Treasurer





I'll be honest, I haven't really been following the story of the shootings in Connecticut today. But despite my usual obliviousness to the news, my Facebook feed has been overrun by links to articles about the number of victims, how many victims were children, gun-law reform, Second Amendment rights, the callousness of the media, general displeasure with the "main stream" media, how none of this would have happened if we hadn't removed God/prayer/"The 10 Commandments" from Schools or Public buildings and how who ever is responsible will burn in Hell for eternity (run-on sentences running wild). But mostly I have seen the picture below circulating like a troubled teenager up for adoption:


Now, I don't blame anyone seeking solace or comfort on a day like today, but I am forced to reflect as to why this particular picture has become so popular. The idea that the children who were mowed down at their school are now hugging Jesus no doubt provides some comfort to the bereaving Christian families of the victims. But what of the Muslim families? Or Hindus?

At times of grief, we look for whatever might ease our pain, but do we think about the truth of such ideas? In a time of crisis, do we even care about truth?

Let's explore the idea that children who are murdered go straight to heaven, as implied by the picture above and as many Christians believe. Does this not mean that those children will be spared the possibility of sinning and being damned? Will not all children who die before the age of accountability be saved in similar fashion?

If Christians really do believe this, as Andrea Yates did, then shouldn't they see the tragedy of today as a blessing that so many children were spared God's wrath? Shouldn't the murderer be praised for saving the eternal lives of so many innocent children?

For as long as people have been able to grieve, they have sought comfort from where ever they can find it. But for me, such horrible events are more easily explained by mental illness and bad people doing bad things, than the idea that god just lets us do bad things so as not to impede on one another's agency; or that the young victims of today's shootings are now with Jesus. I'm sorry, but even if I still believed in god, such a sentiment would not console me. Rather, I find it contemptible and opportunistic of religious people to exploit tragedy in this way.

What good is an idle god?



BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is Republican talk-radio host Bryan Fischer on why god didn't intervene today:

Friday, December 7, 2012

SAY IT AIN'T SO

Many churches count among their numbers people who stop going to church, no matter how long they haven't attended their services. This seems to be especially true of Mormons and Catholics. Whether this is optimistic or opportunistic, many people are disturbed by this practice as it inaccurately depicts congregation numbers.

Look at it this way, if a person is baptised into the Mormon church at the age of eight (or the Catholic church at the age of 8 weeks), but never goes to church services, marks the "atheist" box on census forms, yet never bothers to officially remove their name from church records, will they die a member of that faith? If you ask religious authorities, yes. This may be technically correct by the Church's standard, but by any practical measure they never really participated in the religion, and so should not be considered as members. The same should be true of one who leaves a given church later on in life. If they say they no longer wish to be a member, then that should be the end of it.

Some churches (again, look at Mormonism) intentionally make it quite difficult to remove one's name from their records. In Mormonism the process of removing one's name from church records consists of disciplinary hearings with various church leaders, during which one is asked to denounce the church and its teachings. It is as awkward as it is unnecessary, so many who leave the church either leave without removing their names or threaten legal action if the church insists on going through the "proper channels" in order to drag things out.

In related news, Atheist Alliance International is conducting a "census" where former believers can participate and offer information about their backgrounds. Note: the servers are having issues, so if you can't get to the survey, try again later.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

BLESSINGS INCOGNITO

 A few weeks ago I wrote about the sharp shooter logical fallacy (counting hits, ignoring misses), and how people will often apply this to the efficacy of prayer. Well, today I came across another example of this from my own mother as she explained how blessed she is to have a son serving a Mormon mission. I am not interested in completely destroying her argument (which, honestly seems to be pretty unrelated to my younger brother's mission), but I will explain how one of her examples of being blessed is a broader example of a sharp shooter fallacy.

According to my mother: "[Taylor] was able to go 6 weeks early because his Visa came through early. In a recent letter Taylor said that only ONE Elder arrived in the Brasil MTC, the day Taylor originally was scheduled, November 28th. That is because of the Storm (Sandy) that was on the East Coast. Taylor said the storm closed a major consulate office,making it harder to get Visa, so many Elders had to go to the Provo MTC instead of the Brazil MTC. That would very likely have included Taylor."

Now, my brother is the youngest of my mother's 5 sons, and all of us served missions. My youngest brother is the only one of us who left early, narrowly escaping the horrific fate of having to wait a little while. What if the rest of us had had to wait--would this have been a sign of God's contempt for us?

It is obvious that my mother sees this as a blessing, but what of the mothers of the other missionaries who had to wait to go to Brazil? Does this mean God does not care for them as much as my brother, or is at least arbitrarily withholding blessings from them?

What would my mother say if my brother had had to wait with the others in the Provo MTC? Perhaps it would have been a blessing in disguise, which opened doors he would have missed had he gone straight to Brazil. Maybe the blessings of going to Provo instead of Brazil would be greater, in which case my brother would be the one who missed out. Would this prove God loved the other missionaries more than my brother?

I can take this further than mere conjecture, as one of my closest friends found himself in this very position on 9/11, as he had to wait some time before going to the exact same mission as my brother. And what did he say about having to wait? Well, pretty much what I said above--it was a blessing in disguise (he also admitted it was kind of annoying).

I recall several instances, usually at church, where people have said things like, "There are miracles all around us, you just have to look for them." I understand the positive effect this way of thinking can have on a person's attitude and general outlook on life, but how is attributing things to God, which could easily be coincidence, any different than seeing what you want to see? Without explaining how God actually suspended the natural order on your behalf, how can you definitively say, "God did it?"

And aren't miracles supposed to be more than just mundane or even significant happenstance? I thought Jesus healed the sick, walked on water, and raised the dead--all of which are claimed by religious people today! Miracles are supposed to be supernatural. If an unlikely thing occurs, like, say, winning the lottery, is it a miracle? No! Unlikely things do not need divine intervention--they just need time, as the laws of probability tell us.

Going back to the example of my brother, it was rather lucky of him to leave when he did, but I see no reason to think it was divinely arranged--some times people just have things go in their favor. In fact, it would be more remarkable to me if not a single person had some stroke of luck out of the whole experience. It would also be more improbable for unlikely things to never happen; so, would a lack of anything unusual, lucky or unlikely ever occurring for a single person mean God is making it so?


BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is Richard Dawkins using probability to show how coincidences are meaningless:


Here is a video of a guy who left the Mormon Church, in part because he realized God failed to perform miracles as promised (the opposite of the sharp shooter fallacy):


(and this was going to be a quick post....)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

RIDE ON

"The Horsemen are drawing nearer
On the leather steeds they ride
They have come to take your life
On through the dead of night
With the four Horsemen ride
Or choose your fate and die."
--Metallica "The Four Horsemen"



In the past 10 years or so there have been a number of books published about atheism and various religious beliefs, many of which were spurred on by the attacks on 9/11. Out of these have risen a number best-sellers by four authors, in particular: Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), and Christopher Hitchens (god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). These four men of different scholarly backgrounds have collectively become known as The Four Horsemen (some times called the "New Atheists"), due in large part to their books which seek to dismantle the supernatural claims of religion. As much as I highly recommend these books, this post is actually more about the religious responses to these books and other efforts of the New Atheist movement's push back on religiosity.

Rather than going through specific rebuttals to the books listed above (such as Alister McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion), I want to address some of the arguments which religious apologists and theologians use to counter atheist arguments. For instance, one of the key aspects of the books above and one of my own arguments against religion is a lack of evidence supporting their claims: "Without any evidence for the extraordinary claims you make, I have no choice but to withhold belief." Because of this, some apologists have responded with books about supposed evidence for god and how atheists are either in denial of the evidence or are too stupid to understand it.

One such response is from the infamous Ray Comfort (Banana Man), in his book You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can't Make Him Think. The funny thing about Mr Comfort's book is that his "evidence" seems to be that atheists really do believe in god but deny his existence. Furthermore, while he ridicules atheists for denying his evidence for god, he also explicitly states that he knows for a fact that god exists, and that no evidence was necessary for him to come to this conclusion, nor would any evidence against god be sufficient to convince him otherwise. So, really his book should be titled 133 Pages of Ray Comfort's Theological Hypocrisy.

Another argument which comes up from time to time, is that it takes more faith to be an atheist than a believer, as proclaimed by Bill O'Reilly to Richard Dawkins:


Setting aside the obvious logical fallacy presented by Bill O'Reilly (argument from ignorance), what I find most interesting about this argument is that it belittles the virtue of faith while attempting to insult atheists for utilizing it. It is a flip-flop matched only by certain, recently unsuccessful politicians. Apologists know that evidence is more convincing than faith, and so they try to borrow the credibility of science without actually implementing its principles (i.e. testing, falsification, duplication, etc.). This is especially so in the on-going intelligent design vs evolution debate.

Of course, the primary reason they try to pin atheists with a faith-based position is to level the intellectual playing field (as well as to add insult to ignorance). But by so-doing they have passively admitted the weakness of their own faith-based beliefs.

If faith really is a virtue, why would they seek evidence of any kind? Wouldn't having less empirical support make them more virtuous?

Here is theologian Frank Turek further explaining how he doesn't have enough faith to be an atheist (I'm only posting the 1st of 5 videos; you can look up the rest if you are interested):


As with Mr O'Reilly, Mr Turek's argument is as self-defeating as it is ignorant.





BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is the Atheist Experience ridiculing Ray Comfort's book You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can't Make Him Think:


And one of Ray Comfort actually calling the Atheist Experience:


Here is religious apologist and "Ex-Atheist" Lee Strobel talking about his best-selling book, The Case for Christ:


Frank Turek vs Christopher Hitchens on the existance of god:


And finally, the Four Horsemen talking together about their books:

Monday, December 3, 2012

DEBUNK-A-DUNK

For those who don't know, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has issued a fabulous prize of one million dollars (see left) for anyone who can provide conclusive evidentiary support for any paranormal or supernatural claim. It doesn't matter if it is telepathy, homeopathy, dowsing, astrology, mindreading, bending spoons or keys, talking to the dead, or proving the existence of god, ghosts or invisible pink unicorns; if it is paranormal or supernatural and you have proof that it is real, the JREF will give you one million dollars. So, how many people have won this prize? Zero people...

Despite having some form of this challenge since 1964, the JREF has never had anyone provide indisputable proof of anything supernatural or paranormal, but not for lack of applicants. Here is James Randi explaining the challenge:


James Randi, a successful magician himself, has ruffled feathers for years among his colleagues as he has exposed a number of them as charlatans and frauds, who willfully deceive gullible audiences with claims of being true-blue mystics and psychics and the like. Just as he did to psychic Uri Gellar on the Johnny Carson Show (on live TV!), and a few years later, the imfamous Christian Evangelist Peter Popoff:


Mr Randi is not the only magician seeking to expose opportunistic frauds who prey on the credulous. Here is Criss Angel (successfully) taunting "paranormalist" Jim Callahan with his own money on live television (note: Uri Gellar, who was previously exposed as a fraud by James Randi, is also on the show, and wouldn't you know it, he believes Mr Callahan is the real deal...):


Good stuff, and even better television. One more: Here is dynamic-duo, Penn and Teller, debunking astrology (explicit):


So, why am I spending all this time on debunking supernatural mumbo-jumbo, malarcky, and jibbery-joo? Because the same tactics used by illusionists to defame charlatans can be used to debunk many, if not all, religious claims. For me, atheism is a logical extension of my skepticism. I have no more reason to believe in god than ghosts, star alignment, or the boogey man. Provide me with a rational, empirical reason to believe in god, and I will not only believe, but I will submit your proof to James Randi and give you the money you deserve. I may even eat my hat.


BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is musician, comedian, and atheist extraordinaire Tim Minchin pretty much agreeing with me:


And one more from Mr Minchin on confronting a "New Ager":

Friday, November 30, 2012

BAD EGGS

This is a quick post as sort of a culmination of some of my recent posts on religious figures leaving their religion and also the various inconsistencies and anachronisms of Mormonism. The first video is a talk given by Grant Palmer (a contributor for mormonthink.com) who was a Mormon seminary teacher for several years and now writes books on the problems of Mormonism, and, most interestingly, has "insider information" on various Mormon higher-ups who no longer believe in the church:


Next is Ken Clark who was a Director for one of the Mormon Church's CES Institutes (similar to seminary, but for adults instead of teens) for over 27 years. In the following seminar he talks about the dilemma he found himself in when, as a CES director, Church authorities told him to be dishonest about the Church's history so as to avoid challenging the faith of his students:

Part 1:


Part 2:


Part 3:


Part 4:


Part 5:


Part 6:


Part 7:


Part 8:


Part 9:


Part 10:

AMBASTARDS

"Just as feminists wince when they hear 'he' rather than 'he or she', or 'man' rather than 'human', I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'. Speak of a 'child of Catholic parents' if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a 'Catholic child', stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics."
--Richard Dawkins (author, "The God Delusion")






In high school I was very active in my church, and due to my involvement with certain prominent extracurricular activities, most of my peers knew this of me. My faith became part of my identity, at least from the perspective of others. This was mostly encouraging to me, but at times it also built a lot of pressure to be an "ambassador" (see left) for my church. If I really believed that my church had some divinely revealed truth that other churches were missing, then I had better act like it...

I some times laugh when I think about the role-reversal I have taken when compared with other people I grew up with--especially some of the more popular kids who apparently hit rock bottom (or got kind of close) and found Jesus. A few people from my graduating class are now pastors, of which only one was predictable at the time. Other kids who were not the least bit religious back then are now avid Christians of one variety or another, many of whom are quite vocal about it, as well.

It's strange, though, that those who go the other direction, such as myself, are much less likely to be vocal about their change-over. I have thought many times about confronting some of the louder religious friends of mine, in hopes of engaging in an intellectually provocative discussion. And perhaps I will some day, but in the mean time I have been examining some of their views which they present so publicly. And to be honest, I don't find what they have to say all that thought-provoking, since they tend to either preach to the choir or use old, tiresome arguments which I have already addressed on this blog many times.

One such person is Wes Dunn, who was a rather boisterous Evangelist in high school, so it is no wonder that he is now a Youth Pastor for a large church in Seattle, called City Church. In the videos below, Wes talks about a few things pertaining to his position and offers encouragement for the youth, etc. He mentions a couple of things which I want to address. As preparation for a possible upcoming confrontation (i.e. debate), I will use a standard letter format, addressed to Mr. Dunn.

Dear Mr. Wesley Dunn,

First, I find it odd and slightly menacing of you to tell sexually repressed teenagers that one of the things which helps you stay "fresh and inspired" is having sex with your wife. You say you are being "candid", and I assume you are also trying to paint an encouragable picture of a proper, traditional marriage; but if even I, an atheist, felt a bit put off by your statement, I can only imagine what it might do to a young teenage boy--filled to the brim with testosterone--who recently discovered masturbation, and even more recently discovered it is a sin... But who knows, perhaps you are part of one of those new-fangled "progressive" Christian churches which doesn't spout the usual list of damnable natural urges.

Second, you speak about morality and good versus bad reasons for doing the right thing, which in the beginning had me agreeing with you, but your final conclusion lost me entirely. As commendable as it is to do good things without the promise of a "paycheck", the very next sentence, "There is only rewards in heaven", confuses the idea of doing good things without reward. Aside from having to wait a while longer for your compensation, how is this mentality of heavenly rewards as a motivation to do good things any different than doing these things for money?

The expectation, I would argue, is even more contemptible since people who believe this kind of thing usually think of heaven as being far more grand than an earthly paycheck. In fact, I would say it is more moral to do good things for a finite paycheck, than an eternal prize after death. And along the same vein, how much more moral would a person be who knew they were going to hell and still did good things? What about a person who thinks death is the end of existence, and yet, does good things? Clearly, since they are not doing it for a prize or compensation of any kind, these people would be the most moral of all.

Lastly, you spend a great amount of time talking about "honoring" leaders and trusting God. Yet, you also qualify your advice with obviously amoral exceptions, like slavery and abuse. The interesting thing about this is that the Bible which you hold dear advocates slavery and actually tells slaves to obey their masters. It goes further by giving instructions to slave-masters as to how hard they can beat their slaves (within an inch of their life). So, you seem to be cherry-picking the moral advice you derive from the Bible.

I am curious how you differentiate between the moral and immoral parts of the Bible. If you say the "Spirit of God", then I would ask: Why does the perfect word of God require such divine inspiration to discern the morality of what is supposed to be the "Good Book" from which Christians claim to get their morals. Why all the confusion? How do you know it is actually the "Spirit of God" and not your own mind? Isn't it more likely that you are just rationalizing your own moral compass with what you read in the Bible? Furthermore, if all Christians claim to use the "Spirit of God" to properly interpret the Bible, why are there so many arguments about things like gay rights among Christians, all of which cite the same Holy Book? How do you know that you are interpreting it correctly?

I look forward to your response, but let's be honest, you are never going to read this, let alone respond to it.

Skeptically Yours,


Circle Squared





OK, here are the videos:

Part 1


Part 2

Sunday, November 25, 2012

CTRL+C, CTRL+V

"And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning "punctuated evolution" and the unfilled gaps in post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication."
--Christopher Hitchens (author, god is not Great)
 






Apologetics must be tiring. Insensitive, ignorant critics of religion are constantly questioning and prodding and pointing out supposed "flaws" in logic, rhetoric and scripture. Coming up with adequate responses to these incessant, belligerent attacks from the ungodly without succumbing to the dreary inanity of it all, must challenge the sanity of even the most pious. How do brave and valiant religious apologists do it?

Setting aside my facetious humor for a moment, it does seem like certain religious apologists have their work cut out for them. I have spent a lot of time researching and blogging about apparent flaws in the Book of Mormon. Today is no different.

One of the most intriguing anachronisms of the Book of Mormon is that of various passages cited from the Old Testament which should not be there. Let me explain. According to the story, the first book of the Book of Mormon is about a family leaving Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. This is explicitly stated as the primary reason for their exodus (roughly 600 BC). Before their final departure they stole the Brass Plates from a wicked (inebriated and decapitated) man. These Plates apparently contained a copy of the Old Testament as recorded up to that point. Therefore, anything which appears in the Old Testament after 600 BC (or after the fall of Jerusalem), should not be in the Brass Plates or in the Book of Mormon (as quoted from the Brass Plates).

Well, it turns out there are several passages from the book of Isaiah which, according to the vast majority of Bible Scholars, were written several years after the Brass Plates were allegedly taken. So the question for Mormon apologists is how can these passages be present in the Book of Mormon?

There are a few explanations for how this may have occured. One explanation is that the primary reasons for the current timeline of Isaiah, as accepted by the vast majority of Bible Scholars, are flawed.

Most scholars accept what is called the Deutero-Isaiah theory, which is the idea that the book of Isaiah was actually written by at least 3 different authors; the first being Isaiah himself prior to the Babylonian captivity (chapters 1-39), the second being an anonymous author during captivity (chapters 40-55), and a third author after the Jews were freed (chapters 56-66). Scholars use methods like changes in language, context, and historical names and events to determine this timeline, which I will not go into detail here.

The Mormon apologist response to this is that using these contextual methods to determine a historical timeline is inappropriate since the book is one of prophesy. Well, this is silly when you consider the fact that certain names and events would not have made any sense to the people at the time of Isaiah (pre-captivity), thus rendering the prophesy useless.

Another explanation for misplaced Isaianic passages within the Book of Mormon is pointing out that other passages from the Bible are also present in the Book of Mormon, like the Sermon on the Mount. As apologists will explain, these passages have an appropriate context, like Jesus appearing to a group of people and laying out the Beatitudes, which makes it consistent with the rest of the book. And this is true. However, the fact that the book claims that Jesus appeared and quoted passages of scripture changes the nature of the claim substantially. No such claim is made in the case of Isaiah, as these passages are described as being quoted from the Brass Plates directly. No divine intervention was required! It was simply "copy and paste".

Another problem Mormons face with all this copying and pasting is that there are known errors in the various Bible passages quoted in the Book of Mormon. By this I mean, the Book of Mormon uses entire chapters of the King James Version of the Bible, complete with errors in that version. This means that Joseph Smith very clearly used the KJV when writing those passages in the Book of Mormon. If he had been citing a divinely inspired book as he claimed, which would have come about independently of the KJV, then such errors should not be present, and should instead be consistent with the oldest Biblical manuscripts.

You can read more Mormon apologetics on Isaiah here if you want.

The point I am trying to get at with all of this pseudo-scholarship is that Mormon apologists quite often find themselves in this awkward position of standing in opposition to the majority of Bible scholars. They have to challenge the consensus in order to remain relevant and viable. In order for the Book of Mormon to be true, the vast majority of Bible scholars have to be wrong about the timeline of Isaiah, among other things. And the only reason these types of conflicts occur is because of something Mormon apologists have chosen to accept and assert without any reason or evidence. Is it any wonder, then, that their apologetic style is equally unsupported?

You would think apologists would be a lot more apologetic...



BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is Mr Deity exploring some more Book of Mormon anachronisms:


Saturday, November 24, 2012

DECRESCENDO

"God, Satan, Paradise and Hell all vanished one day in my fifteenth year, when I quite abruptly lost my faith. I recall it vividly. I was at school in England by then. The moment of awakening happened, in fact, during a Latin lesson, and afterwards, to prove my new-found atheism, I bought myself a rather tasteless ham sandwich, and so partook for the first time of the forbidden flesh of the swine. No tunderbolt arrived to strike me down. I remember feeling that my survival confirmed the correctness of my new position."
--Salman Rushdie




Growning up, I recall many stories of people being cut-off from their families after joining the Mormon church. To us such accounts stood as a testament that Satan had a hold on people of other faiths, and caused them to lash out especially vitriolically towards our church. To them, we were a cult.

There is no doubt that many protestant denominations have a very low opinion of Mormons, but we were blind to the fact that such stories are common of pretty much anyone who leaves the faith of their parents. This is understandable when you consider the view the parents often hold that those who apostacize from their church will be doomed to Hell. As awful as this is, it is far worse when your own children fall victim to such a fate (by a loving god, no less).

I once shared with my mother an experience of a person leaving the Mormon Church and being shunned by their parents (whom my mother knew personally), and she was shocked that the parents reacted as they did. This was likely the first time she had heard of this coming from members of her own congregation. As for my parents' reaction to my atheism, my mother just cried uncontrollably, and my father has yet to comment. I am one of the lucky ones. The unluckiest of all are those who are in a position of religious authority or responsibility.

A few years ago, Daniel Dennett (the Santa Clause of Atheism, see left) wondered how many active pastors and reverends and priests no longer believed in their respective faiths. To answer this, he founded the Clergy Project as an outreach for ministers who are now atheists and don't know how to get out. You see, many professional clergy have spent years studying their religion, and have built successful careers preaching. Their entire livelihood is dependent on their faith. They have no other professional skills to speak of, so leaving the church means losing their job and putting the well-being of their families at risk.

One of the main goals of the Clergy Project (now 390 members strong) is to provide aide for those who make the decision to leave the ministry and try to find another job. Two of the most well-known "graduates" of the project are Jerry DeWitt and Teresa MacBain.

Jerry, a product of Jimmy Swaggart, has had a rough time finding a job since leaving his ministry, and even spent some time living amid persecution from former congregants, but now works for a foundation similar to the Clergy Project, Recovering from Religion (a fitting position). Here is an article from the New York Times on Jerry's transition.

Teresa's experience mirrors Jerry's quite a bit. Similarly, she also had trouble finding a new job, but now works for American Atheists. Here is an article from NPR on Teresa's story.

The dilemma of choosing between your family's well-being and your own moral integrity is no doubt difficult. The issue of when an atheist comes out publicly is hotly debated. Some of the more agressive anti-theistic atheists proclaim that all non-believers should be open and vocal about their position. I tend to side with the softer approach that you should only come out if you are comfortable with the potential backlash. Only you can make that call, but if you feel adequately prepared and courageous enough to make the stand, doing so makes the climate of public discourse more hospitable and welcoming for other closeted atheists whose situation may be more dire.







BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is an episode of the Atheist Experience with guest Teresa MacBain:



Here is the Atheist Experience with Jerry DeWitt:



And now, Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet...