Monday, December 16, 2013

GUILT FREE

Just a quick thought.

So, the bishop of my ward as a teenager posted the following on Facebook today:

""Adam fell that men might be; and men are that they might have joy". I was thinking that that is so profound, how could anyone make that up?"

Let's ignore the obvious argument from ignorance about Joseph Smith making up such a profound statement, and cut to the chase. I heard this verse from the Book of Mormon dozens of times while growing up, but today I saw it in a new light. This verse implies that Adam fell (that is, he sinned against god by eating fruit from a tree which was forbidden--albeit conspicuously placed--by god, and for this all of mankind must endure certain consequences which vary between denominations) so that men might have joy. In other words, it is through sin that men have joy.

Bam!

I only chuckled a little...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

SERENDIPITY-DOO-DA

"...and 'thank you' to god for making me an atheist."
--Ricky Gervais (hosting the Golden Globe awards)







The other day on my commute to work I heard a rather interesting story on NPR. I don't recall all of the details, of course, but the following is the gist of the story:

During World War I there was a great battle between a British battalion and a German battalion. As the battle progressed, a British soldier noticed a German soldier who had been injured so gravely that he estimated that this foe was effectively out of the fight, and in an act of mercy, decided not to kill him. The two men were close enough to make eye contact and the extremely grateful German soldier never forgot the face of the man who spared his life.

Fast forward several years to when the now very prominent German soldier, who had recounted this experience many times as an act of God, recognized the face of a British man in a photo in a newspaper as the same man who spared him. The German man felt so overwhelmed with gratitude that he was compelled to send a letter of thanks to the British man, but not knowing how to get a hold of him, instead sent the letter to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who then forwarded the message on his behalf.

The British man was awe-struck by this message and replied by issuing a statement that if he had known who the German man would one day become, he would have shot him on the spot. The German soldier was (if you haven't figured it out by now) Adolf Hitler.

I kind of chuckled at this when I heard it. It reminds me of so many similarly serendipitous accounts that one has to ask, "are all seemingly miraculous events justifiably attributable to God?" Nowadays, my answer is a flat "NO"; but even when I was religious I would ask similar questions.

I always found it odd that whenever someone would tell a story of god helping them, or of a miracle of some kind, no one in the audience ever asked them for justification. They always just nodded in agreement and took the story at face value. I suppose this might make sense if one believes that god controls everything. But wouldn't this also mean that god gave the person the hardship, thus necessitating divine intervention, in the first place? So really what they are saying is that god gave them a problem and solved it for them, so that they would recognize his hand in their life. Really?

The very idea of such a proposition being made by people who also believe in a god of omniscience and omnipotence is laughable. As far as I can figure, an omniscient and omnipotent god who created everything stands in opposition with the notion of freewill (as many Calvinists will point out).

Consider it this way: god created this universe knowing in advance everything that would happen, and chose to create this specific universe in which billions of people would fail to meet his standard and join him in heaven, and knowing who those people would be before he created them, despite having the ability to create a different universe in which everyone would be saved. Therefore, either god chose your eternal path for you before he even created you, and is responsible for every action you take, especially the evil ones for which he judges and condemns you, thus negating any illusions of freewill you might have, or an omnipotent and omniscient god does not exist and freewill remains intact.

He also could have created a universe in which I believe in his existence. Therefore, god made me an atheist.



BONUS MATERIAL:

Mr. Deity and the Evil 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

BELLY ACHE

"Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory."
--Scott D. Weitzenhoffer








Many times when I challenge the beliefs of religious people they will accuse me of being cynical and closed-minded. The problem is not that I dismiss their beliefs out of hand, as some claim, but that the evidence which they present for their extraordinary claim is laughable upon inspection.

Most often, they are simply committing the "argument from ignorance" fallacy, and figure that if I cannot offer a more plausible explanation than "god did it" (or "aliens" or "ghosts"), then they are justified in their belief. Never mind the fact that "I don't know" is always a more tenable position than asserting unverified supernatural forces.

I will admit that on some occasions I have literally laughed out loud at a person's supernatural claims, but I do at least try to hear them out first.

A couple of months ago a childhood friend of mine posted a story on Facebook with the following comment:

"The more I read about this story the more incredible it is. . Miracles do happen!"

Intrigued, I read the article which inferred that a dead Catholic Saint (my friend is Mormon, by the way) appeared at a car accident scene, said a blessing with a woman trapped in a car, immediately following which the firefighters were finally able to open the car enough to get the woman out, and then vanished without a trace. 

Now, the facts of the claim are that a man dressed as a Catholic Priest showed up and said a prayer, and the firefighters got the woman out shortly after. These are facts confirmed by several eye-witnesses, including the firefighters and medical personnel. But a dead saint?

Other articles claimed that the man was an angel, which, depending on who you ask, isn't that far from a dead saint.

One of the reasons so many people are convinced this priest was an angel is that the road had been blocked for "quite a few miles", according to the local sheriff deputy (video below), and no one saw how he got to the scene or how he left. Intriguing to be sure, but does this imply, much less prove, supernatural powers?

Furthermore, witnesses add that no one recognized the priest from the local parish of the small nearby town.

Oh, and he had an unrecognizable accent (which raises the question, why would an angel have an accent?).

So far it seems that there are a lot of unanswered questions about this priest. But do unanswered questions and astonishing coincidences equal a miracle? Perhaps to those eager to believe.

In the days following the incident, but still before the article was published, no one had come forward as the mysterious priest, thus adding fuel to the speculative fire. Not surprisingly, the local Catholic Church said that they had no interest in conducting an investigation of the priest's identity, and neither will the local sheriff deputy (who is also convinced of a miracle).

This seems especially telling to me. These people are more interested in maintaining their comfortable belief, that an angel saved a woman's life, than determining the truth about what happened. As I have said before, once you accept a wrong answer, however comforting it may be, you stop looking for the right answer.

Well, as it turns out the mystery priest did turn himself in, er... he came forward and answered all the questions that people were using to posit this as a miraculous angel sighting. Not only is he not an angel, but he was also past the road block before police put it up, thus allowing him to slowly approach the scene until he got about 150 yards from the car where he stopped to help. Also, he was visiting the local parish because the regular priest was ill, and he was more or less subbing. And the accent? Irish or something; I couldn't quite place it (therefore, he's an angel, right?)

So, that's it. No more miracle. Everyone sees that it was a regular priest doing what regular priests do, and this is no more miraculous than any other accident with a survivor. Right?

I was hoping that my friend who had originally posted this story would post an article about the mystery priest coming forward. He did not. Even if he had been made aware of the priest of earthly origin, this would still not be a notch against god's track record for him. He is the kind of believer who holds the preservation of faith as more important than truth. Although, I doubt he sees it this way.

What about the eye-witnesses who started all the commotion in the first place? One firefighter had this to say:

"My initial reaction was kind of two-fold: One side of me was absolutely ecstatic that I'm now gonna be able to physically meet this individual that was there to provide the comfort. And the other side of me was kind of sad because I know there was a lot of people that were touched by this story that were grasping on to the thought that this mysterious priest was placed there by god in a form that they had their interpretation of. He was my angel either way and I'm gonna still stick to that."

(Note: even the priest admits that the woman was saved by expert response of professionals who have trained for this very thing. It's too bad he also asserts that they did so with god's help. But if god is going to help professionals in this way, why train in the first place?)

So, what did the priest actually do other than occupy the time and attention of police and firemen attempting to save the life of a woman trapped in a car and offer reassurances? Where is the miracle? That personel were able to pull the woman out after the priest offered a prayer? She was trapped in the car for over an hour, not to mention had barely survived a horrific accident. Where was god then? More importantly, if god really had caused the firefighters to open the car only after the priest showed up, how would you demonstrate this? It is one thing to point to the coincidences of the event; it is quite another to offer verifiable evidence of supernatural intervention.

If the priest had not come forward and clarified the issue, would anyone still be justified in believing he was an angel or that it was a miracle from god? How would such an answer really answer anything? Wouldn't it simply confound the issue with more unanswered questions?

A comfortable delusion is still a delusion.



BONUS MATERIAL:

"News" segment on the mysterious priest:


Sheriff's deputy describes mysterious priest:


The priest comes forward:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

PREACHING TO THE CHOIR

"It is wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true."
--Dallin H. Oaks (Mormon Apostle)

"Some things which are true are not very useful."
--Boyd K. Packer (Mormon Apostle)








So, this weekend is the General Conference of the Mormon Church. A talk was given this morning by a Mormon Apostle, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, which caused many faithful Mormons to go straight to their Facebook accounts (or blogs) and post comments and quotes from the talk, such as:

"Can't love Elder Uchtdorf's compassionate and nonjudgemental talk enough."

“Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended, or lazy, or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question of whether they should separate themselves from the Church. In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly that it was restored by a young man that had questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.”

"If you seek truth, meaning, and a way to transform faith into action, if you are looking for a place of belonging, come, join with us. If you have left the faith you once embraced, come back again. Join with us. If you are tempted to give up, stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here."


To those who are currently struggling with doubts about the Church, this admonition may very well seem positive and encouraging. This may even help some come back to the Church. But I have a few problems with what Mr Uchtdorf said (surprise!).

But first, if he really is so concerned about those with doubts, shouldn't he provide reliable, credible sources for people to investigate and resolve their concerns? All he does, really, is acknowledge that legitimate concerns exist. In no way does he even attempt to address these concerns or provide a way for doubters to address their concerns on their own.

Next, he followed the above quote with this bit of "logic":

"Sometimes questions arise because we simply don't have all the information, and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn't make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction."

In other words, "We may not know how it all fits together now, but the Church is true, therefore there must be a reasonable, rational explanation. We just shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the Church isn't true before we get that explanation which resolves everything."

Not only have I addressed this type of reasoning in other posts, but it is rather ironic that he should be suggesting such a skeptical and moderate view with regards to doubts when he represents an organization which tells people to accept as true things for which they do not have evidence, simply because they pray and have faith that they are true.

It is interesting that he does not admonish doubters to use this same method of seeking truth and knowledge concerning issues of Church History, Joseph Smith's translation capabilities outside of the Book of Mormon, Jewish DNA in Native Americans, the utter lack of archaeological support for the Book of Mormon, or anything else Mormon apologists have been wrestling with for decades. It seems that in matters of fact and evidence, it is best not to pester god with prayer. He's probably busy watching 5 million children under the age of 5 die of starvation this year...

Next up, this little nugget of "wisdom":

"Doubt your doubt before you doubt your faith."

This was a popular phrase passed around by some of my Mormon friends on Facebook. It carries the sound of poignancy and wit, without actually possessing either. As philosopher Daniel Dennett would describe it, it is a "deepity", meaning it sounds deep and meaningful on the surface, but lacks any real substance upon close inspection.

What Mr Uchtdorf would have you, the doubter, do is to continue believing despite your doubts. Again, he offers no way to legitimately resolve your concerns, and seems to suggest that your faith should be enough to override any concerns you may have. Meaning, "The Church is true, therefore your questions are invalid or in error." This is as absurd as it is dishonest.

And what about those, such as myself, whose primary doubt is the very nature, reliability and veracity of faith? How is faith a path to knowledge? Isn't believing something to be true without evidence to support it intellectually lazy? How is faith a virtue?

Personally, I am less concerned with the historical problems of Mormonism. When I was a believer, I was much like Mr Uchtdorf in that I had unresolved questions, but I told myself that an explanation must exist because the Church is true. I was more or less fine with the fact that I didn't know how everything worked out because I had faith that everything must and would work out once god endowed us with the proper understanding. This never happened for me, and I have yet to hear of it ever happening to anyone else.

Once I left the Church, based primarily on the idea that faith is not a path to knowledge, I was finally able to relish all of the anachronisms and historical issues of Mormonism.






BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is Mr Uchtdorf's full talk:


YouTuber Flackerman addresses "following the Prophet":


Flackerman also addresses the current method of resolving concerns about Mormonism (repost):

 
And one of my personal favorites "Top 10 Mormon Problems Explained":
 


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

GOOOOOOOOOOAL

"Can omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change His future mind?"
--Karen Owens

"What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof"
--Christopher Hitchens







On two recent occasions I have walked down a hall at work and heard a Pastor talking to a group of children about science and the Bible. The first occasion was a rant against Bill Nye the Science Guy for his view that people who believe in Creationism are stupid. Of course Dr Nye said nothing of the sort, but actually said that teaching Creationism to children as fact is inappropriate because of the lack of evidence supporting it. See for yourself:


The second occasion was a lesson on Noah's Ark and the Great Flood. According to the pastor, before the Flood there was a canopy of water in the sky with enough water to cover the whole earth. Even the highest mountain was under at least 35 feet of water.

A rather astute kid asked "Was Mt Everest covered in water?" 

The pastor realized how absurd it would be for him to say that even Mt Everest was covered in 35 feet of water and came up with the following explanation: "You know, I think that at this time in history the mountains were not as high as they are today. So, I think Mt Everest probably became taller after the flood."

That's right folks, this pastor actually believes and teaches children that Mt Everest was hundreds, if not thousands of feet shorter just 4000 years ago, and god flooded the whole earth with a canopy of water, which has since dissipated.

Now, I don't really care if he believes in the Flood or not. The thing which interests me the most is his reasoning for saying that Mt Everest was not as tall 4000 years ago. This is an ad hoc rationalization which he uses to justify a belief which he has taken on faith, rather than evidence. And upon being presented evidence which would challenge his sincere belief (namely that Mt Everest is really freaking tall, so that would require a lot of water to cover), he has to come up with some explanation to keep his belief at least somewhat tenable within his conflicted mind.

But does his view that Mt Everest grew hundreds or thousands of feet in such short order sound any less ridiculous than any other assertion made about a global flood? How does this claim stand against current geological evidence of how mountains form?

These sorts of rationalizations are common among religious people. For instance, it is generally accepted by scholars that there is no evidence which corroborates with the Book of Mormon assertion that Native Americans are descendants of Ancient Jews. None. But this doesn't stop some Mormons from coming up with explanations of how the Jewish DNA got mixed up with the Mongoloid DNA (actual Native American ancestors) and now it is really hard to find their Jewish ancestry. 

Or that the Book of Mormon explanation of the Hill Cumorah does not fit the geological description of the hill which Joseph Smith claimed to be the Hill Cumorah (where the Book of Mormon was allegedly found), so there must be a second Hill Cumorah somewhere in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

You see how this works, right?

This method of argument is called "moving the goal post". As a claim is refuted, an additional claim is added which explains away any refutation. This can go on indefinitely, and it can be as difficult to detect as it is dishonest.

This brings me to logical proofs for the existence of god, such as: the Ontological argument, the Kalam Cosmological argument, or the Teleological Argument for god (aka "TAG"). I will not go through each of these arguments in detail for the sake of time (maybe another post), but the gist of these "proofs" is that one can show through logical reasoning that a god must exist.

Setting aside any flaws in these arguments (such as unsupported premises), is such a proof genuine evidence for the existence of a thing? Is presenting an argument which describes a need for some thing to exist equivalent to demonstrating that that thing actually exists? 

If I present an argument that the only way for me to get to work is through teleportation, does this prove that teleportation is possible? If I present an argument that the only way for shoes to be made is by fairies entering my home and crafting shoes, does this prove the existence of fairies? The answer to all these questions (and more!) is a resounding "No".

Ultimately, logical arguments can be fun thought exercises, but they cannot prove the physical or metaphysical existence of anything.




BONUS MATERIAL:



Brittish Creationists Versus American Evolution (Full Documentary) 


Mr Deity on Creationism:



Bill Nye on Bill Maher:

Friday, August 30, 2013

CHILD'S PLAY

"I mean, I've been praying. But I must not be praying right. Looks like we're just gonna have to answer each other's prayers."
--Excerpt from "The Sixth Sense"






When I was a kid, my friends and siblings and I would play a game which we affectionately called "Hot Lava". You may have heard of it. Our preferred method of play was to go to our outside jungle gym and swing set and work our way from one end to the other without touching the ground, which we had labeled "hot lava". Climbing and swinging from one apparatus to another was great fun. If the Seattle weather did not permit outside play (which, quite frankly, rarely stopped us) we would use the couches in the Living Room to protect us from the carpet (blue is such a strange color for lava). In a simple kind of way, we had effectively found a solution to the made-up problem of lava covering the ground.

A friend of mine, who has somewhat recently returned to Mormonism after a hiatus of a few years, posted on Facebook what could be described as a call to sinners to never give up on repenting (because that's what Satan wants):

"The adversary tells us we've gone too far and that there is no hope. It is his greatest lie. His hope is that we'll believe it and give up until we can no longer heed the voice of inhibition and reason. That we'll just give up and take it one step further and then another. And slowly drag ourselves down until there truly is no hope. Christ's atonement covers every dark deed and selfish desire. It doesn't just have the power to cleanse us and enable us, it has the power to change us. It can change even the dirtiest of sinners. Then why not us? The message of the atonement is love. Who cares what we have done in the past. God loves us so much that he forgave us of all we've done and will do before we were ever born. He just asks that we seek him out and accept the power of Christ and allow ourselves to be changed. He cares not about the past. Only the future."

Before I delve into the heart of his admonition, one might argue that Satan's "greatest lie" is not that sinners are too far gone to repent and be saved, but that he is, in fact, god. Just gnaw on that for a bit.

It is a rather common teaching in Mormonism, and I imagine in Christianity as a whole, that Christ's atonement is all-encompassing and that Satan gently coerces us to step away from god through sin and then convinces us that repentance is futile. This seems to be the point my friend wishes to refute, and, honestly, for one who believes such a theology to be true, it is probably comforting and it may even be useful. But is it true?

Let's suppose, for now at least, that it is true. Then, is it just? Is the system which Mormonism (and Christianity) proposes the best an all-knowing, all-powerful creator of everything (most especially us) could come up with?

This system is set up in such a way that every single human being is guaranteed to fall short and sin against this creator. And because we are all doomed, an innocent third party is summoned to pay the price of our sins through human blood-sacrifice. Some theologians quibble over the question of whether the atonement took place at Christ's death on the cross or as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Either way, the result is the same: an innocent, uninvolved person absolves us of our responsibility and accountability for finite crimes against an omnipotent judge. Ah, but this ultimate sacrifice of eternal love has a catch. You must accept this filthy blood-sacrifice on faith (meaning without any evidence that it actually happened or was even necessary), and failure to do so puts you right back where you started--DAMNED.

This is absurdity of the lowest grade. If true, this system is immoral and quite literally unbelievable by a thinking person; if untrue, this is millenia-old hucksterism and should be expunged from our society. Please tell me why an omnipotent being would be offended by such arbitrary transgressions by puny mortal beings which he intentionally designed to offend him? Why can't he just forgive us for his mistake of not creating us in such a way as to be able to pay our own debt. Isn't the very notion of a debt inconsequential to an omnipotent being? Why should he care? Isn't taking offense a sign of weakness rather than omnipotence?

As with my nostalgic game "Hot Lava", where we solved the problem of hot lava on the ground by climbing over furniture, so is the atonement of Christ a made-up solution to a made-up problem. And who, you may ask, made-up this sloppy solution to a fictitious problem? The very same who invented god to explain natural phenomena: ancient, ignorant men.




BONUS MATERIAL:

The thing that god can't do (warning: explicit):


 How amazing is God's Forgiveness? Not very. 

 
Christopher Hitchens: The Immoral Teachings Of Christianity 
 


Friday, July 19, 2013

SING A LITTLE SONG

"[Ted Bundy] said that after a while, murder is not just a crime of lust or violence. It becomes possession. They are part of you ... [the victim] becomes a part of you, and you [two] are forever one ... and the grounds where you kill them or leave them become sacred to you, and you will always be drawn back to them."
--Special Agent William Hagmaier of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit quoting Ted Bundy (serial killer)

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment:"
--Jesus




Some people describe religious beliefs as "false yet harmless" convictions lacking any real or demonstrable harm to the person holding them to be true. But can believing something to be true without supporting evidence really be without harmful effects on other aspects of one's life?

While some thoughts or beliefs, at least on the surface, may seem not to directly hurt a person, the very process through which one comes to believe falsehoods is harmful in itself, and if left unchecked, can sprout through in other lines of reasoning until one does, in fact, believe something harmful.

For example, let's say I believe Santa Claus exists and I have some anecdotal, though fairly unconvincing evidence to support this hypothesis. While the specific belief that "Santa is real" may not hurt me, the fact that I accepted the claim without thorough examination, perhaps because it makes me feel comfortable or offers me reassurance in some way, leaves me susceptible to accepting other unsubstantiated claims on tenuous evidence. It is the process of thought which causes the harm more than any specific false or unsupported belief.

Throughout the countless religion classes I attended while growing up in the Mormon Church, I heard several times that "our thoughts inform our actions," or some variation of that theme. For this reason, one should be mindful of one's thoughts since thinking about bad or sinful things (especially things of an explicit or sexual nature) will invariably lead one to act accordingly. Cases of serial killers and rapists are often described as examples of people who contemplated about such horrific acts long before committing any crimes, thus suggesting that in some sense their crimes could have been avoided by thinking happy thoughts.

But it was not the thoughts of Ted Bundy, and others like him, which led him to kill so many people. No; his beliefs, not simply his thoughts, informed his despicable actions. If he had merely thought about killing people, rather than believing that he could and should do so--consequences being damned somewhat ironically--he likely would have lived a long life as a charismatic, if slightly off-centered and perverted loner. Additionally, being a sociopath, thus lacking the necessary empathy to prohibit him from inflicting harm onto another human being, didn't help.

Likewise, if I spend a great deal of my time fantasizing about flying like a bird or Peter Pan, I know deep down that any attempts to do so would be foolhardy and no amount of thinking will allow me to actually attempt it successfully. However, if I sincerely believe I can fly, perhaps only under specific circumstances (i.e. with the aid of pixie dust), the game changes entirely, and I might be inclined to try it. 

Many suggest reciting or humming a religious hymn as an effective way to distract oneself from unseemly or distasteful thoughts and thus save oneself from the anguish derived from the eternal effects of unrepentant sinning. Coincidentally, many also discover the very Pavlovian conditioned response which may occur if one repeatedly couples thoughts of hymns and sexual desires, however innocently or well-intended. 

As compelling as the argument may sound that our actions are so easily informed by even our worst, most depraved and perverse thoughts, fundamentally the reasoning is flawed, and is nothing more than a feeble attempt by small-minded theocrats to control the minds of their adherents--especially youth with budding libidos. This is what George Orwell described in his book 1984 as "thought crime". It is not enough to say that one should abstain from sexual promiscuity--even thinking about something like adultery, according to Jesus, is the same as committing it, and is just as damning. So much for nuanced and thoughtful consideration from a "just and merciful" god.



Bonus Material:

The Atheist Experience dispelling the notion that lust is the same as adultery:



Thursday, July 11, 2013

GIMME SHELTER

"Part of what a doctor can give a patient is consolation and reassurance. This is not to be dismissed out of hand. My doctor doesn't literally practise faith-healing by laying on of hands. But many's the time I've been instantly 'cured' of some minor ailment by a reassuring voice from an intelligent face surmounting a stethoscope."
--Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion")





I don't like talking about my job on this blog, although, today I feel compelled to do so. I have mentioned a few times in previous posts that I work with at-risk teenagers. The facilities in which I work are classified as Residential Treatment Centers. Basically, such facilities combine aspects of boarding schools, mental hospitals and juvenile detention centers.

More specifically, I work with teens with a variety of mental disorders, a history of physical, sexual, verbal and neglectful abuse, chemical dependency and substance abuse, and quite often a criminal history. Many of my patients are either orphans or children of the state (i.e. Child Protective Services takes the kid away from the parents). Many of my patients who still live with their biological families wish they didn't, and for damn good reasons.

These are children with the worst start in life. They have every reason to give up, and many of them do. For many, Residential Treatment Centers offer the first opportunity for a real education, real medical care, a real meal and some one to talk to. For some, this is their last stop before a life in prison.

Often times people will ask me what the success rate is for my line of work. Are we able to rehabilitate these kids? Can they get a job? Will they stop using drugs? Will they perpetuate or stop the cycle of abuse into which they were born?

I usually respond, "It depends on what you consider to be 'success'".

Most people I talk to seem to have the idea that we make these kids "normal" by conventional standards. But for me success is simply having them leave our facility better off than when they came in. For example, let's say we take in a 16 year old girl who has made several attempts to kill herself; if we can improve her self-image enough that she no longer makes serious suicide attempts, but instead starts cutting her forearms and wants to start drinking as soon as she gets home--that is success. It is not ideal. But at least she is alive, and hopefully will continue treatment of some kind when she leaves.

To a certain extent, success in this field is subjective. There is no way for me to be sure that kids really are better off going to Residential Treatment Centers rather than sticking it out at home, because there is no way for me to analyze the alternative for individual patients. Choosing one life-path necessarily means you will never go down another path. But studies are being conducted which follow-up with treatment patients.

As one might expect, the results are pretty scattered, but generally speaking, after about 5 years or so, most former patients tend to speak favorably of their experience in treatment. Some even confess that they would probably be dead if they had not been to a treatment center. Alas, this is still a bit subjective, though.

This leads me to the reason I started this post. A couple of days ago, a facility where I used to work posted the following on Facebook:

"Did you know that ‪#‎spirituality‬ can be therapeutic for teens. It's true"

They also included a link to the following "study": Helping Your Teenager Discover Spirituality.

First of all, the writers of this article differentiate between religion and spirituality, but only loosely:

"Spirituality can be defined as a sacred connection between oneself and a higher power... Religion focuses on beliefs and practices associated with a religious organization or creed; spirituality focuses on inspiration, self-reflection, and personal connection to the sacred."

The thing which bothers me the most by this opening statement is that they switch the definition of "spirituality" without acknowledging it to the reader. A connection between oneself and a higher power is not the same thing as focusing on inspiration, self-reflection and a personal connection to the sacred. I'm not really sure what is meant by the last line, a "personal connection to the sacred". What does "sacred" actually mean outside of a religious context?

The article continues by making claims that spiritual and religious teens have lower occurrences of "bad things" and higher occurrences of "good things" (as defined by the authors). But again, here we have a case of people generalizing and concluding things based on a correlation (which is not causation), rather than refining the research to determine what it is about religion and spirituality--if anything--that actually contributes to positive outcomes in the development of teenagers. There is an implication here that such success lends credence to the notion that god exists; but in reality, even if religion and spirituality do cause more positive outcomes in teens, it could just as easily be explained through the placebo effect. And considering the extensive research which has been done on the placebo effect and the utter lack of conclusive evidence for the existence of any sort of god, which seems more likely?

It always bothered me that this particular facility focused so much on religion while I worked there. One of the highest ranking (and highest paid) employees at this facility was a full-time Chaplin, who required every patient to meet with her upon admission in order to determine the belief system (or lack thereof) of the patient. At first it didn't really bother me since I was still a practicing Mormon. But over the few years that I worked there, I began my deconversion and began to see the problem of their model of ever-so-gently pushing religion on their patients.

These are young, volatile, impressionable teens, many of whom are either ambivalent towards religion due to having to deal with more pressing matters (i.e. abuse), or they hate the idea that a god would let all of these terrible things happen to them. They come to a facility for psychiatric help and for the first time feel safe among adults. In this state, some are susceptible to the views of the adults they are coming to know and trust. It is fantastically inappropriate and a conflict of interests to suggest to these young, damaged minds that they need religion or spirituality in order to be happy and normal (which is the implication). For this very reason, most Residential Treatment Centers train newly-hired employees to avoid talking about religion with the patients. They are here for treatment--not church. And for this reason, none of my patients know I'm an atheist.



BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is a great response from Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) concerning the idea that teens in treatment need religion: Does Believing in God Really Lead to Better Psychiatric Treatment Outcomes?

Here is Sean Mackey (Stanford Medical) on the placebo effect:


And the placebo effect of religion:


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

CIRQUE DU SO-LAME

"Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood..."
--Carl Sagan ("Demon-Haunted World")

"Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic powers of signs and exorcisms . . . Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!"
--Leon Trotsky




When I first heard about Evangelical Christians "speaking in tongues" at revivals my teenage mind thought it was a joke. I really could not fathom that someone would believe--much less attempt--such a practice genuinely. But when I saw the footage on television (I think it was on the Trinity Broadcasting Network) it became clear to me that such people exist.

Later I found that my own religion, Mormonism, taught something similar: the gift of speaking in tongues. Most often this "gift of the spirit" is attributed to Mormon missionaries who go to foreign countries and learn the native language in order to preach more effectively. Never mind the 2-3 months of language training before even entering the country and the countless hours of daily study and practice with natives throughout the 2-year mission; if god wants thousands of highly motivated, collage-aged young adults with a first-world education to learn languages not dissimilar to the language of their up-bringing, through thousands of hours of individual and group study, he will make it so.

Similarly, when I saw Evangelical preachers "heal" frail and infirmed people on live television through the power of Jesus Christ, my reaction was one of amazement that anyone could take such a circus act seriously. And, yet again, I came to find that Mormonism taught a similar principle, which at the time I had to assume was more authentic to miracles performed by Christ than the "bastardized" version essentially being sold by charlatans to presumably sincere suckers.

While the Mormon version of faith-healing is much less flashy and more intimate (laying hands on the head of the sick and praying that god will heal them, usually in a small group), it is every bit as misguided and scientifically unsupported as more theatrical versions of the practice.

It seems that on some level many religious people know that science and medicine are more reliable in healing the sick than a sincere prayer. My own father, who was both a Mormon bishop and a Family Practitioner during my childhood, taught me that when sick one should pray and follow doctor's orders. Apparently, god requires both since he "helps those who help themselves" (I failed to find this little quip in any canonized scripture). Well, I could just as easily claim that Joe Pesci helps those who help themselves; or, for that matter, my half-empty can of Mt. Dew.

But as Russell Glasser of the Atheist Experience inquires, if one is to take an aspirin and say a prayer for a headache, and the ailment subsides, how do you know the prayer actually did anything? The scientific literature shows that aspirin is effective in relieving headaches by itself, so what exactly does the prayer contribute?

On its own, can prayer relieve headaches with the same level of consistency and effectiveness as aspirin? If so, why bother spending money on aspirin? If you had to choose a single method to relieve a headache, aspirin or prayer, which would you trust to get the job done in a timely manner?

What about cancer treatment? Amputees? How many prayers did it take to eradicate small pox?

How many people does god require to sincerely pray and die before he will "inspire" doctors and scientists with a cure for HIV and AIDS? If god inspires doctors in this way, as I have heard religious people claim, thereby giving god all the credit for scientific advancements, of what use is the scientific method? It seems to me that the only way to verify that a scientist is so "inspired" by god is by testing their "inspirations" through scientific experiments. Without scientific verification, such revealed wisdom falls within the realm of magic rather than science.

In what way is god actually helping anybody?




BONUS MATERIAL:

Comedian George Carlin on religion (and Joe Pesci) (warning: explicit):


I have posted this before, but its too good not to post again: Benny Hinn letting the bodies hit the floor:


And one with light sabers:

Sunday, June 23, 2013

TRUMP CARD

"Of all the supposed virtues, faith is the most overrated."
--Christopher Hitchens




With regards to conflicts between science and religion, there seems to be two camps of believers: Those who may not understand how, but the two must be compatible (i.e. there is no conflict, only misunderstanding based on incomplete information). And those who subscribe to the mantra "if religion and science disagree, go with religion" (i.e. religion wins by default).

The first camp is the one which I adopted in college, and I think it is the most common among religious people, especially those who at least make an attempt to be intellectually honest without disregarding their religion completely.

The second camp seems to be common among those who value faith more than critical thinking and science, such as fundamentalists and Bible literalists. A third camp would be for those who cannot be intellectually honest without disregarding religion completely, and thus become disbelievers.

From time to time I hear people say that belief in things like evolution and the big bang, etc. are not necessarily in direct conflict with religious belief. Usually they cite the fact that most people in this country are believers of some stripe and at least 45% of the population accepts evolution and the big bang (I don't feel like looking up the actual figures, but it is close to that). This means that a substantial portion of the population believes in religion and accepts evolution and the big bang. I don't know for certain, but I would think that most of these people would fall into the first camp.

It may, in fact, be true that some people have been able to reconcile their religious beliefs with various scientific theories and discoveries. They may even consider such discoveries to be supporting of their beliefs. But this reconciliation does nothing to negate the diametric opposition between the scientific method and faith.

The two methodologies stand in direct conflict with each other. Faith, for instance, is the acceptance of something as true without evidence to support it. Some may claim to have knowledge through their faith (whatever that means...). And some may even claim things to be true in the face of evidence to the contrary (i.e. Young Earth Creationists).

The scientific method does not allow for this kind of thinking. It demands evidence. Without evidence, one cannot claim anything to be true or accurate.

And so we see that faith (accepting something without evidence) is, in fact, the opposite of the evidence-based scientific method. Science has no more room or tolerance for faith than it does for any other bias. It is designed to squash such presumed conclusions at their core. A belief supported by evidence trumps an assertion with no evidence every time. Any thing less than this is neither rational nor intellectually honest.

So, tell me again why faith is a virtue?





BONUS MATERIAL:

Bill Maher explains why faith is nothing to be admired (Warning: some language):


The Daily Show on Christian persecution from gays:
 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

SHAMELESS PLUG

So, something neat happened a few days ago...

I have linked to The Atheist Experience in many of my posts, and it really has been an integral part of my own de-conversion from Mormonism. I love just about everything about the show: the topics, the open call-in format, the hosts. It's all good stuff. I have even considered visiting Austin, Texas just to sit in the audience and meet the people who put on the show.

Well, it turns out that the show has been gaining some notoriety, which is unusual for public-access content. The show is all over Reddit, which is great since r/atheism is one of the most popular atheist sites on the internet, with over 2 million subscribers just to that sub-page. Even more exciting is that now big name celebrities, such as Ricky Gervais (creator of "The Office"), are becoming fans of the show and promoting it (btw, Matt Dillahunty is the main host on the show):



Did you notice the 108 "retweets" at the bottom there? And that's just on the first day of posting.

At any rate, the most recent show (below) had a caller who starts a conversation about people using the show as a tool for de-conversion. And since this was the case for myself (I have literally watched almost every single episode from the last 8 or 9 years), I thought it fitting to pay a tribute and promote the show in a post as a way to show my gratitude.




Wednesday, June 5, 2013

WATERED DOWN

"26 And after that he came men also were saved by faith in his name; and by faith, they become the sons of God. And as surely as Christ liveth he spake these words unto our fathers, saying: Whatsoever thing ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is good, in faith believing that ye shall receive, behold, it shall be done unto you."
--Moroni 7:26 [emphasis added]





There is a common myth within Mormonism of two missionaries stranded in the middle of the desert, standing beside a car with no gas, and one says to the other: "Hey, let's pour some water in to the gas tank and ask god to turn the water into gasoline." After a brief comparison to a similar miracle performed by Jesus turning water into wine, the other missionary pours some water in to the gas tank, utters a heart-felt petition to god and viola! the car starts and they drive off to save more souls.

Many religious people have probably heard similar types of stories as this one (which should tell you something of the nature of such tall tales...). Well, in my mission a couple of sister missionaries actually tried this. One might think that this would be the perfect opportunity for god to reveal himself, and flex his supernatural muscles, but the result was exactly as one would expect if some one had poured water in to a gas tank without asking god for a miracle--not only did the car not start, but they had to send it to a mechanic for major repairs.

So, why didn't god answer the prayers of these young women who were supposedly on his errand? Surely, they demonstrated great faith, and their request would have been worthwhile by god's standard. Why such negligence from an omnipotent being who promises his faithful adherents that they can move mountains if they just believe?

In retrospect, the most interesting thing to me is not that the sister missionaries failed to receive an answer to their prayer, but how the rest of us missionaries responded to the story: belly-aching laughter. Every one of us laughed hysterically when we heard about the faux pas, and some even made misogynistic claims of the ineptitude of women behind a wheel, etc. Not a single one of us thought it would have been reasonable to expect god to answer their prayer. Why not?

The truth is, I, and many like me, are implicitly skeptical of miracle claims, if only with regards to the claims of others. I can't tell you how many times I have heard miracle claims and thought, some times aloud, "That's a little far-fetched, or just too good to be true. Why should I believe such a claim?"

Generally speaking, I think most people are pretty skeptical, if a little under-practiced. Skepticism is a skill set. It is very similar to logic, the scientific method, and the Socratic method. Each methodology has a set of fairly well-established rules which help us reduce bias and increase potential understanding. Applying these methods of thinking to our own biases and beliefs is one of the most difficult, yet most necessary forms of self improvement.


BONUS MATERIAL:

The Atheist Experience on failed prayers:

Saturday, May 18, 2013

MORE THAN A FEELING

Like most salesmen, religious missionaries try to convince anyone with a listening ear that they are missing some essential thing in their life which can only be acquired through adherence to the missionaries' religion. For instance, while on my mission I would regularly compare temporary happiness with lasting joy. I would explain that things like sex, drugs and alcohol, etc, may allow a person to feel happy during certain moments, but in the long run the happy feelings do not last. By comparison, those who have a real relationship with Jesus Christ through Mormonism will have lasting joy and peace of mind. However, not once did I ever explain how this "lasting joy" actually occurs through such a relationship. I never even thought to ask.

A comfortable delusion is still a delusion. If believing that you have a personal relationship with a "still small voice" inside your head makes you happy, congratulations. I have no doubt that some one, somewhere is comforted by the fact that they are the real Napoleon Bonaparte (and I'm still single because my rugged good looks intimidate women... and I'm rich). By the way, if you do, in fact, hear a "still small voice" in your head you are not crazy. But if you think it is anything other than your own mind, you very well may be (or you have been trained through religious indoctrination to call your conscience "god").

The fact is, I made it up. Well, in all honesty, I borrowed the argument from someone else who made it up. It is a common concept. People want to feel special. They want to feel like they have some bit of truth or knowledge which makes them special. And to show how special they are, they try to pass it on to other people so they can feel special, too. That way they can reassure each other of their mutual specialness.

Before his death, Christopher Hitchens challenged theists often to present any moral action or benefit of religion which can only be done or acquired through religion. In his public debates he never recieved a satisfactory answer, most of which would involve saving people from an unsubstantiated place of eternal torture after their death for the finite crime of disbelief (which, by definition, is an infinitely unjust punishment). Mr Hitchen's refutes this by pointing out that this is a made up solution to a made up problem, and therefore, does not qualify as an answer to his proposition:





BONUS MATERIAL:


A group of Christian kids claiming they are persecuted:


And an atheist YouTuber responds (warning: explicit):

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

LITTLE PEOPLE

"But both in theory and in practice, religion uses the innocent and the defenseless for the purposes of experiment.... By all means let Abraham offer to commit suicide to prove his devotion to the Lord or his belief in the voices he was hearing in his head. By all means let devout parents deny themselves the succor of medicine when in acute pain and distress. By all means--for all I care--let a priest sworn to celibacy be a promiscuous homosexual.... But the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin."
--Christopher Hitchens (author, "god Is Not Great")




Like most religions, Mormonism has some unique cultural traits. Green Jell-o, road shows and knowing someone who was saved from Ted Bundy by the Three Nephites are all common in Mormon culture. Also like other religions, there is a push within Mormonism to have children give talks in church and bear their testimonies of things which they cannot know. Few people seem to have a problem with this; that is, until they see children of another faith engaging in this practice...

This is fairly common, actually. In my home ward it occurred at least once a month during sacrament meeting (the main congregational meeting). Usually it would play out as follows: a young mother or father escorts their 2-6 year old child to the pulpit, holds them up to the mic and whispers into the ears of the child statements of fact, such as "I know the Church is true; I know Joseph Smith was a prophet; I know the Book of Mormon is true" and so on. Very often the parroting child receives praise from the both the parents and members of the congregation, despite the fact that they just lied in front of dozens of people by saying they know things to be true which they do not know, simply because their parents told them to say such things.

Now, I can appreciate the general adorableness of a 3 year old speaking into a microphone over a large crowd as much as the next cold-hearted cynic; but does no one else see the inherent problem of teaching a child through positive reinforcement to lie about their beliefs? What will happen when that child grows older and the social pressure to acquire a "genuine" testimony of the things they have been mindlessly repeating for years increases? How many Mormon teenagers have a real testimony and how many are simply lying or repeating platitudes and assertions from their childhood? How many adults are in the same position?

I can recall one instance when I gave a talk in church at about the age of 8. I was too old to be expected to just repeat the words of my parents, so I had to come up with something to actually talk about. I don't know how much my mother helped me prepare my talk, but I do know that I delivered it by myself--a fact that I was quite proud of at the time. The talk itself was about the "first" time I ever received an answer to a prayer:

My mother's side of the family gets together about every 3-5 years at a campsite out side of Fresno, California. There are two barrack-type buildings (one for the boys, and one for the girls), a kitchen, and a rec hall, all along-side a river just a couple of miles from a large lake. It has been a family tradition for 50+ years. On one side of the camp is a rather steep, rocky hill which goes up about 100 feet or so to the service road.

Well, when I was about 3 years old, my 5 year old brother and I decided to hike up that hill. As we reached a large boulder about half way up the hill, we decided that we were lost, despite the fact that we could still see the barracks. My older and wiser brother decided that we should say a prayer so that we could make it back to the camp safely. He offered the benediction. After a little exploring around the rock, and deciding that we were still lost, we continued up the hill until we reached the road. We turned left.

A little ways down the road (approximately 50 feet), we found a small convenience store (full of candy and ice cream) where one of the employees very quickly figured out that we had wandered away from the nearby camp. They escorted us to the camp down the hill, where our grateful, albeit slightly confused mother was getting out of the shower.

In my 3 year old mind, we had gone on a wild adventure and had received an answer to prayer. In reality, two young adventurous boys had wandered around the outside edge of a campsite for about 15 minutes.



BONUS MATERIAL:

An ex-Mormon expresses her feelings on indoctrinating children:


The Atheist Experience on Indoctrination (part 1):


Part 2: