Sunday, May 30, 2010

Facepalm: Theism and Nihilism

Religious blathering about atheism--especially the "New Atheism"--is only good for generating facepalms. Father Edward T. Oakes thinks he's got the mean ol' atheists all figured out by quoting...

wait for it...

Friedrich Nietzsche:
In his book On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche gives us this ultimate atheist scenario: “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of 'world history'—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.” He continued:
One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. . . . There is nothing in nature so despicable or insignificant that it cannot immediately be blown up like a bag by a slight breath of this power of knowledge; and just as every porter wants an admirer, the proudest human being, the philosopher, thinks that he sees the eyes of the universe telescopically focused from all sides on his actions and thoughts.
This atheist scenario undermines science itself. If the “knowledge” delivered up by “science” only serves to puff up a pathetic animal doomed to die in an uncaring universe, why bother with science anyway? If the search for knowledge is nothing more than a vain attempt to puff oneself up like some miles gloriosus in a Falstaffian comedy, what’s the point?
I posted the following comment as a response:
This seems a bit like asking why one would use a rhetorical question. We do science because we're curious. We search for knowledge because we can.

Nihilism is theism's child, not atheism's.
What makes Oakes's rant facepalm-worthy is the grandiose claim that Nietzsche's text, here cast as The Atheist Scenario™, undermines science. Wait...undermines? No, not at all.

Oakes is just flatly wrong. He uses dead and irrelevant Nietzsche as an atheist straw man so that he can make an objectionable appeal to consequences. Even if science were merely a vain (in both senses of egotistical and trivial) enterprise of a doomed humanity, it would still be worth pursuing.

I don't doubt that there's some vanity involved in the scientific enterprise, as in all human enterprise. But who says we're doomed? Yes, the universe is uncaring, but people seem to have the capacity to care. So do other animals. People seem to be able to make judgments and to establish values. Within our own little world we seem to be able to have a great impact, for better or worse.

There's a common prayer that goes:
Grant me the serenity;
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage, to change the things I can;
And the wisdom, to know the difference.
We certainly can make a difference here and now. This is not a matter of free will or control or inspiration; this is a matter of fact. The fact is that we are here. The fact is that our actions have material effects in the world. The fact is that these effects are consequential. Atheism helps us to understand and deal with the facts as facts.

Only theism sees Atheism as nihilism. Only theism fears the night. Only theism hates the question. Only theism seeks to enslave the fact.

And one important fact is that God is the product of science. God (like all gods) became established to explain natural phenomena and to authorize the religious power structure. Oakes, however, turns this around and tries to make the ridiculous claim that "If God is 'our most enduring lie,' science is inevitably founded on that same lie." No, science is not founded on God at all and has absolutely no dependence on God.

Are not the fear-mongering and irrelevance of theism becoming ever more obvious? A facepalm no longer does justice to their inanity.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


I just received my copy of Jasmine by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden. It's a beautiful recording. So much interplay goes on between the two artists.

Jarret's liner notes are very interesting, too. Worth sharing:
Music is an amazing thing. It doesn't exist as a stationary object. It moves in real time and can be uplifting both to the player and the listener. The melting, trans-figurative moment, that feeling of everything being there, just for an instant, that surrender that overcomes us as players (if we're good enough) and leads us on to the next pregnant second, patient in the knowledge that there always is, waiting in the wings, the next chance to feel this fullness and celebrate it (as it is only in the nature of art to produce it this way); to this we dedicate our lives. But it is not for us alone; it is also made for you, the listener, to feel these same feelings along with us, to participate and to also be uplifted by it. Art is dying in this world, and so is listening, as the world becomes more full of toys and special effects. With this death will come the undoing of many possible feelings: beautiful, tender, deep, trusting, true, sad, full of internal meaning and color. Closeness won't have to necessarily be physical. Intimacy will be hard to find. Communication will be lost. Here is some music for you. Take it and it's yours. Charlie and I are obsessed with beauty. An ecstatic moment in music is worth the lifetime of mastery that goes into it, because it can be shared.

This recording was done in my small studio. It has very dry sound and we didn't want to have the recording sound like anything but exactly what we were hearing while we played. So it is direct and straightforward. I chose to use the American Steinway that really isn't at all in the best of shape, yet I have this strange connection with it, and it is better for a kind of informality and slight funkiness that was going to work with the music. With a choice of songs this good, it was hard not to become engaged right away. We did not rehearse per se, but went over chords when necessary. This was really a session that came as a result of doing an interview for a film about Charlie, after which we played a couple tunes. We had not played in over thirty years, but something magical happened and I then invited Charlie and his wife to the house to do some playing for a few days with no assurance that we'd have anything (including sound) that we'd want to release. Over close to three years we lived with these tapes, talked a lot about them, disputed over choices, but eventually I found Charlie to be the most remarkable and sensitive helper in getting this finally assembled. I wanted only the distilled essence of what we had, and it took some time to wean ourselves from going for hip solos or unevenly played tunes (even though they had wonderful things inside them). Some were too long; others were somehow out of character. Charlie and I listened to this many many times (mostly late at night) and became aware that there were some that just had more magic, more moments of surrender to the mood while retaining their essential integrity. This is what I was looking for; and then I had the unenviable job of finding the right order. After I thought I found it, Charlie called me and said, "How did you figure that out?" I think I said that none of the rational ideas of how to order things made sense, so I went into "not thinking" mode and came up with (dare I say it?) the only perfect order of these great versions.

I hope many of you can hear this on a good system. There are nuances abounding and the details make the music what it is. Jasmine is a night-blooming flower with a beautiful fragrance and I hope you can hear what went into this, as there is no way to do anything as touching as this by rehearsing it until it dies. This is spontaneous music made on the spot without any preparation save our dedication throughout our lives that we won't accept a substitute: it's either the real thing or it's nothing. It's either real life or it's a cartoon.

Call your wife or husband or lover in late at night and sit down and listen. These are great love songs played by players who are trying, mostly, to keep the message intact. I hope you can hear it the way we did.
I highly recommend Jasmine.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Love That Gives Life

Today is my tenth wedding anniversary, which has tin or aluminum as its traditional symbol. It's a happy occasion that reminds me of many things but in particular my wedding day. I'm not the kind of person who gushes about the happiest day of my life, but my wedding day really lived up to the hype.

The music for the ceremony was great -- we hired a harpist. All of our friends and family surrounded us. We held a combined Catholic-Jewish ceremony with a priest and a rabbi. My wife was so beautiful. Everything about the wedding was fun, elegant, inclusive, and meaningful.

Ten years on, we are still very happy. In one way we have grown apart: religion. But in all else we are completely together. We enjoy being with each other and spending time together. We enjoy the children, our home, and our families. We look to the future with optimism.

I wouldn't say marriage is easy, but it's not that hard either. The main thing is not to be a jerk. Anyone can blow up a good marriage, a good job, a good time. It's something else to care for people and for things that give life. Children are life and they bring life. A house gives life. So does a neighborhood, a garden, a poem, a piece of furniture, a music CD, and so on. The job of a married person is to find and grow things that give life.

When I think of my marriage and my wife, I think of the good life she has given me. This is true: she has brought a special life to my love and love to my life. It's a nice thing to be married, and I'm pretty lucky to have the wife I do and the life I do.

Can We Agree on Just This?

In the blogosphere, Socratic method is really annoying.

Here's how the method tends to be employed:

(1) I assert something, with or without additional support.
(2) Questioner asks me to clarify an element of the assertion.
(3) I make the clarification.
(4) Questioner asks me to clarify another element of the original assertion or an element of the clarification.
(5) Steps 3 and 4 get repeated infinitely.

The questioner's intent is to get me to reveal my "hidden" or latent presuppositions--which are, of course, wrong. What's supposed to happen is that when I end up exposing my own biases, I'll quiver and shake with horror at how wrong I have been all along. The questioner gets to delight in his skill at having made me defeat my own arguments, and I slink away bitter and depressed.

Unfortunately, the questioner never gets it right and winds up just being a pest. As for me, I usually understand what my presuppositions and biases are. I think about such things and find them interesting.

So instead of going all Socratic on me, why not just make a counter-argument? If you disagree with anything I say, just tell me so and let's hash the fucking thing out.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Evolution's Gaps versus Creationism's

We are all connected.

I recently had a conversation in which I was taken to task for talking about evolution as if it were a fact. My excuse, of course, is that evolution is very well attested. I agree with the scholarly consensus that asserts evolution rises to the level of fact. In our exchange, my conversational partner reminded me that "there are huge gaps in evolution." I may agree with the proposition of there being gaps, however large, in evolution, and I probably should have articulated my opinions on evolution with greater humility.

Nevertheless, I've been thinking about the premise that evolution has huge gaps. From this initial premise, the reasoning usually proceeds to then state that the huge gaps mean the figurative jury is still out on evolution. Therefore, if evolution remains an unresolved question, then one is justified to maintain his or her preferred religious beliefs--in particular, one may comfortably hold onto the doctrine that people were created by God. One assumption running around in this reasoning is that evolution contradicts the teachings of the Bible, so if evolution is accurate, then the teachings of the Bible are false. The resulting implication, then, is that if this one core teaching of the Bible is false, then every other teaching that follows is similarly suspect and open to question.

I want to talk here about the "gaps" reasoning by looking at the theory of evolution and how a gaps charge against it is made. My intention is to show that the charge isn't very strong and to conclude finally with some thoughts on the implications for the Bible's teachings.

Let me declare up front that I have no training at all in the biological sciences beyond high school and my own reading on the subject. I will not, therefore, try to champion or to explain the scientific merits of evolution. What I would like to do, however, is present some of the key claims or hypotheses of evolution and then relate what I see.

To start, let's take a definition of evolution from the University of California, Berkeley:
The definition
Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations). Evolution helps us to understand the history of life.

The explanation
Biological evolution is not simply a matter of change over time. Lots of things change over time: trees lose their leaves, mountain ranges rise and erode, but they aren't examples of biological evolution because they don't involve descent through genetic inheritance.

The central idea of biological evolution is that all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, just as you and your cousins share a common grandmother.

Through the process of descent with modification, the common ancestor of life on Earth gave rise to the fantastic diversity that we see documented in the fossil record and around us today. Evolution means that we're all distant cousins: humans and oak trees, hummingbirds and whales.
What strikes me immediately is the elegance of the definition and what it purports to explain. The theory is really quite simple and very beautiful, which of course is not a reason to think it's accurate or wrongheaded. For me, the strength of the theory lies in its specificity: gene frequencies, populations, generations, species. It tells me that I can look at gene frequencies across populations, generations, and species to confirm or to falsify the central idea of common ancestry.

What, then, are the sources of evidence for evolution? According to the same website, the main sources include:
  • Fossil evidence -- Most commonly, an organism, a physical part of an organism, or an imprint of an organism that has been preserved from ancient times in rock, amber, or by some other means. New techniques have also revealed the existence of cellular and molecular fossils.
  • Homologies -- Similarities between related organisms in anatomical, molecular or cellular features.
  • Distribution in space and time -- Dating of fossils and elements, and population patterns of living things across all the Earth.
  • Evidence by example -- Present-day organisms and recent history as sources of information about the past. Artificial selection, experiments, and nested hierarchies all provide additional information that sheds light on the development of life forms.
With the definition of evolution and identification of the main sources of evidence for evolution, we have a rudimentary sense of what evolution is and how we know what we know about it. The third and final element of evolution that I want to introduce is how evolution works, the mechanisms that drive the modifications in "descent with modification."

I like the explanation given by doctoral student Jeremy Yoder, who describes the "Big Four" processes of population genetics:
These are the four processes that account, in one way or another, for every change in the frequency of genes within natural populations. In other words, the Big Four account for much of evolution itself. They are:
  • Natural selection, changes in gene frequencies due to fitness advantages, or disadvantages, associated with different genes.
  • Mutation, the source of new forms of genes;
  • Genetic drift, or changes in gene frequencies that arise from the way probability works in finite populations; and
  • Migration, or changes in gene frequencies due to the movement of organisms from site to site.
Lay readers may be surprised both by what we know, and what we don't, about how these four processes operate in nature. Natural selection is relatively easy to measure, and apparently ubiquitous in natural populations—but we don't know how often the resulting short-term changes impact evolution over millions of years. Mutation, the source of variation on which natural selection acts, seems to vary widely among living things. Genetic drift means that a trait can come to dominate a population even if it has no fitness effect—or sometimes a deleterious one. Finally, migration across variable landscapes can interact with selection, drift, and mutation to completely alter their effects.
I highly recommend Yoder's series of blogs on the Big Four, and his blog is quite excellent generally.

Although I think we have here a pretty good sketch of what we're talking about when we talk about evolution, I also want to devote some time and space to the idea of the "gaps" in evolution. Let me say up front that I have no doubt that there probably are "gaps," if that means unknown or unresolved elements in our picture of the historical origins and development of particular species. I don't have a problem with gaps in principle because there are a lot of species on Earth (5 to 100 million; science has identified 2 million) and there's a huge amount of time to work with. The Earth may be about 4.6 billion years old, and "[i]t is estimated that the first life forms on earth were primitive, one-celled creatures that appeared about 3 billion years ago" ( I don't expect minute-by-minute accounts of the development of every single population on Earth going back 3 billion years.

However, I do expect that some elements of evolutionary theory--its central claims, lines of evidence, identified processes, and the relationship between them all--would receive careful scrutiny from scientific experts and laypeople alike. Here, for example, is a description by an organization called Answers in Genesis that discusses "Gaps in the Fossil Record":
The most glaring problem with the belief that all life arose from a common ancestor is the lack of fossil evidence of the millions of transitional forms that should be evident if evolution had happened.

It must be noted that this argument is often dismissed through two lines of reasoning: 1) the lack of a complete fossil record and 2) the problems inherent in identifying what is transitional. However, this does not diminish the problem, as some evolutionists suppose, since the types of changes evolution requires to give rise to the various animal kinds over millions of years would be expected to provide ample examples in virtually every layer of the geologic record. This is not the case.

Instead, most of the geologic record is better explained by the catastrophic processes during the global Flood and the subsequent localized catastrophes after the Flood (e.g., that formed the Grand Canyon).
I must say that the above passage is rather offensive because it is quite flagrantly using rhetoric and emotional language to muddy what might be a real argument. The first paragraph frames the question about the fossil record as a "problem," and a "glaring" one at that. It also characterizes (misleadingly, I would say) the hypothesis of common ancestry as a "belief." I see this particular case as an instance of trying to equate a belief derived from scientific method with one derived from traditional teachings. The first emerges as a conclusion based on observable facts, study, and experimentation. the second emerges as a sense of intellectual satisfaction based on received stories, dialogues, and personal experience. My point is, however, that before we get to the real substance of the "gaps" challenge, the writer or authorizing agent of the challenge is trying to cheat by framing the matter as one of traditional belief.

But what of the substance of the "gaps" challenge? The basic objection is the hypothesis that if evolution had happened, then there should be millions of fossils corresponding to "transitional forms." What are transitional forms? According to the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, a transitional form is:
An organism with features that it holds in common with organisms presumed to be its ancestor and descendant but that neither of these hold in common. For instance, archaeopteryx has feathers in common with birds and scales in common with reptiles, but neither of these features belong to both birds and reptiles.
A second definition comes from the UCal Berkeley site:
Fossils or organisms that show the transformation from an ancestral form to descendant species' form. For example, there is a well-documented fossil record of transitional forms for the evolution of whales from their amphibious ancestor.

So, the Answers in Genesis charge is that there are more gaps in the fossil record than we should expect. With the caveats that I'm not a biologist and not familiar with all of the evidence that we actually do or don't have for evolution, I must say that I'm not impressed with AiG's charge. My main reason for this, however, is logical: I would expect the common ancestry hypothesis to be based on the fossils that we have, not the ones we don't have. I would also expect that the fossils we have fit with the other sources of evidence. I'm not terribly concerned about missing fossils because of the number of species and the vast amount of time involved. If the two definitions above of transitional forms can be trusted, then we have at least two examples of transitional forms, so we know that in some cases we can see it. I would like to know why we wouldn't see it in other populations and species over time.

I also don't find the final paragraph of the AiG charge as helpful as it could be. There, a counter hypothesis is made that "most of the geologic record is better explained by the catastrophic processes during the global Flood and the subsequent localized catastrophes after the Flood (e.g., that formed the Grand Canyon)."

First, it seems to me that we have abruptly switched gears. In evolution, fossils are one source of evidence. The fossil record shows evolution over time. In the AiG formulation, however, fossils are not a source of evidence but instead the thing to be explained. Could the location of particular fossils be the result of certain catastrophes? Why yes, I don't see why not. But catastrophism does not tell us anything about the relationship of different fossil specimens to one another, if there is a relationship.

This is the second element that makes the AiG charge unhelpful for me: the lack of a coherent formulation of the hypothesis set up as the alternate to evolution. Combining the explanation of evolution given before and the AiG charge given above, I imagine that the alternate hypothesis is:
Through the catastrophic processes during the global Flood and the subsequent localized catastrophes after the Flood, God made life on Earth and gave rise to the fantastic diversity that we see documented in the fossil record and around us today.
If this is an accurate representation of the special creation hypothesis, or at least a part of it, then I think it's clearly weaker than the descent with modification hypothesis. Why? Because the hypothesis will not work if

(1) We don't have positive evidence of a worldwide deluge.
(2) We don't have positive evidence of [a] God.
(3) We cannot explain what it means to use a term like "made" in the context of life formation.

I imagine a real biologist could comment much more effectively on the relative weakness of the alternate hypothesis, but I think the point can safely be made that Occam's razor applies here and we are right to approach the alternate hypothesis with extreme skepticism.

I also imagine that my conversational partner meant more than the fossil record by "huge gaps" in evolution. I won't make any guesses as to what that might mean, but I'm already not predisposed to going through another AiG-type exercise where the objection to evolution is framed misleadingly, where the objection is of seemingly minor significance, and where the alternate hypothesis actually broadens the number and scope of items to be explained.

In sum, the difference between the definition of evolution and the alternate hypothesis is that the first gives a way to solve a problem while the second one gives more problems. The descent with modification hypothesis may ultimately fail, but the hypothesis itself articulates how to go about reinforcing or falsifying it. The special creation hypothesis is less clear in its articulation and depends on unestablished categories such as global Flood and God.

When we compare evolution to creationism, then, we can fairly conclude that

Whatever the gaps in evolution, the gaps in creationism are substantially bigger and badder.

Indeed, this conclusion seems to me so obviously sensible and accurate that I really wonder why anyone would prefer creationism to evolution. Can someone explain that to me?

I'll answer my own question by returning to the idea of biblical teachings. When a believer talks about biblical teachings, the matter includes both the substance of the story told and the "lessons," the articulation of right behavior derived from the story. The matter also includes doctrinal matters, such as teachings around the "Fall," sin, afterlife, and so forth, but I am not really concerned with doctrine.

Let's say, for instance, a church teaches that the biblical story of creation, particularly the creation of humankind, implies that each person is special and valuable to God. What happens to this teaching if the story is not true? My answer is that it does not necessarily make all of the teaching untrue. The essential lesson on human specialness and value can remain intact. Specialness and value, however, become re-contextualized: humans as special against other people and other living things (which are also special), and as valuable in reference to the family and societies to which people belong.

This post is already too long, so I may continue on the above line of thinking in a separate essay, but my point here is only that evolution contradicts the factual/historical/scientific claims of the creationist's Bible. It challenges some elements of the Bible's moral teachings but allows for the core of the teachings to retain their fullest expression.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Bad Plus

I've been too busy to post much. As compensation, here are two videos featuring the Bad Plus.

"Everywhere You Turn":



Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Best Case for Atheism, Christianity Edition

I recently laid out what I think is the best case for Atheism. In that essay, I summarize the concept of God this way:
It cannot really be explained, it cannot be proved, it fits nicely into a human strength for creating imaginary characters, it is deeply undermined by the problem of indiscriminate evil, it is not the best explanation for anything, and it’s the most improbable cause of observed reality.
Any one of these flaws is devastating on its own, but the collective effect of them all makes it very plain that God is almost surely a human invention.

However, as decisive as the case is against God, the story does not end here because Christians don't believe in this God. I have argued before that Christians pray to a different God than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (see this also). They don't like the God of the "Old Testament." No one does. Before Richard Dawkins gave the definitive summation of this character, everyone already gave ol’ “I am that I am” the more pleasant sounding euphemism of being “jealous.”

My point is that Christians have always been embarrassed with the old God, and they aren’t all that bothered by dismantling him. For Christians, all roads to the True God™ run through Jesus. If Jesus is right, they believe, then the true nature of God is known only through Jesus. Indeed, the real significance of the character Jesus is not to redeem humanity for its sins but to redeem God for his. Those silly, spiritually blind Jews just got God horribly wrong.

For the Christians, then, let’s talk now about Jesus. Let's sum up what we really know about this character and how we know it.

(1) The very existence of a real Jesus corresponding to the person described in the Gospels is highly questionable--no one can assert with certainty that a real Jesus ever walked the earth.

(2) The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are our only canonical sources of information about the events of Jesus’ life.

(2.1) Mark, the earliest Gospel, is generally agreed by biblical scholars to have been composed around 65 CE. That’s about 30-65 years after the described events are supposed to have happened.

(2.2) None of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, and none were written by the disciples Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

(2.3) The writers of the Gospels heard the stories of Jesus from others; we don’t know how many or how few others there were.

(2.4) Other, apocryphal gospels are presumed to have less historical value than the canonized texts. All of these, so far as I know, date to much later than the putative time of Jesus. In particular, I am thinking of the gospels of Peter, Mary, Judas, Philip, and Thomas. However, these "other" gospels indicates that several different Jesus traditions were around, possibly from very early on. This must lead us to ask why the orthodoxy is the orthodoxy; put differently, we cannot just assume the orthodoxy is most accurate, or accurate at all, simply because it's the orthodoxy.

(3) The story of Jesus’ empty tomb--perhaps the single most significant event of the Gospels--is different, even contradictory, across each Gospel.

(4) Before the Gospel stories, there is no evidence of any knowledge of a tomb of Jesus (empty or occupied).

(5) We have not one single writing from or about Jesus during his supposed lifetime (see here).

(5.1) We know of several people who lived during or very near the supposed lifetime of Jesus but who mention nothing about him, which would be strange for an influential healer, teacher, and political rebel. These people include Justus of Tiberias, Philo of Alexandria, Pliny the Elder, Seneca the Younger, Valerius Maximus, and Velleius Paterculus.

(5.2) Philo, a Jewish writer who lived from 20 BCE to 50 CE, never once wrote anything about Jesus, even though he did write about political conflicts between the Jews and Pontius Pilate in Judea.

(5.3) All non-Christian references to Jesus can be shown to have either been introduced later by Christian scribes or originally based on Christian claims.

(6) In the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries, there were many conflicting beliefs about who Jesus Christ was, including beliefs that he had never existed on earth "in the flesh."

(6.1) In Marcionism, for example, Christ was a purely spiritual entity. Other schools of thought in the first three centuries of Christianity included Nestorianism (Jesus and Christ were two different entities), Docetism (Jesus appeared physical, but he was really incorporeal), Apollinarism (Jesus had a human body and human soul, but a divine mind), Arianism (Jesus was the son of God, not God himself), and Catholicism (Jesus was fully human and fully divine, both God and the son of God).

(7) In light of modern understanding of reality and of supernatural claims, it’s irrational to believe that the supernatural claims made for Jesus would be true.

(7.1) We already reject supernatural claims that have more evidence than the Jesus claims. For example, we don’t believe that the women of 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, were actually witches. But we have more historical evidence that they were witches than we have evidence of Jesus actually being a real person.

(7.2) People 2000 years ago were more ignorant about the natural causes of events than we are today. They were less educated in critical thinking and philosophy, with virtually no access to diverse views.

As in the earlier case for Atheism, I'm seeking here to compile a list of incontrovertible statements. I don't see how much contest one can make, for example, out of statement #1. The seven basic statements above tell us that we have hardly any serious evidence at all for the existence of Jesus, let alone for the supernatural claims about him. Our textual sources are self-interested and contradictory. The idea of a historical Jesus seems to have emerged and evolved amidst other competing ideas about Jesus over the course of Christianity’s first three centuries. We make special allowance for the existence and divinity claims for Jesus that we would never give to another figure.

So, we don’t know much of anything at all about the historical Jesus. All we can say for certain is that the New Testament reports on him as a teacher, executed rebel, and religious icon. Given that the case for God is so weak, it makes little sense to grant any credibility at all to supernatural claims with respect to Jesus.

If there was a real Jesus, he was born and died as a human being, and that's it. He’s gone.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Religion as Ideological Aristocracy

Atheists: Feel our anger

On another blog, I came across a message from a commenter. The commenter, it turns out, is a theist just getting started with a new blog of his own. Indeed the theist is a bona fide pastor at a church.

His first post attempts to answer why atheists are "so angry." His answer is that it's basically a massive case of SIWOTI:
Atheist Angry Reason #1: In their minds we are basing our lives, worldviews, and important life decisions on the equivalent of a fairy tale.
I took the bait and responded, thusly:
I am an atheist -- and I suppose a new atheist, at that -- and I've always been puzzled by the charge of being angry. I don't think it's so and tend to view the charge as a what religious apologists do to rationalize and minimize atheist arguments. So, I think you are mistaking blunt talk and lack of deference for anger. Even from those folks you link to [Dawkins, Hitchins, P.Z. Myers] -- I don't receive that as anger at all.

I also disagree with what you construct as the target of atheist "anger" -- your belief in a fairy tale. The specific content of your belief is a smaller part of the issue, in my opinion. The big issue, as I see it, is the free pass given to religious figures and religious teachings to be taken as authorities on subjects they know very little about. What the Bible, for example, may or may not say about the origins of the universe and the nature of humanity is simply irrelevant to contemporary public policy. People like Pastor Rick Warren, Pat Robertson, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach have no special expertise or moral authority on matters of abortion, stem cell research, AIDS, the environment, natural disasters, or anything else outside. The special place given to religion and to religious leaders is something I think everyone should be concerned about.

So, I think you are playing rhetorical games with the phantom "atheist anger" and the focus on "fairy tales." Neither of these are the point. The point is that we live in a world today where we must take a hard look at the ideological aristocracy to which religion belongs. Personally, I want to see that aristocracy dismantled.
I think the term "ideological aristocracy" is quite apt. Religion is an Ancien Regime that needs to be toppled. Some sects, such as Roman Catholicism, are doing a nice job toppling themselves.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Best Case for Atheism

Jack McCoy Could Win This Case

I usually make my Atheist posts in response to some other post made by a religious person. In the case of this post, I am responding to someone who is absolutely sure he’s proven the existence of God and the truth of his particular religion. Please forgive me for not linking to said person: I’m sure you know just the sort of bloke I’m talking about.

So, what I’d like to do in my own brief way is lay out the best case for Atheism. That is, why should someone conclude that Atheism is more probably rational and right than (any) theism? Here are the reasons why:

(1) It’s not clear that a being such as God (in the modern Judeo-Christian sense of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful supreme being) could be at all. If the concept of God is logically inconsistent, then the God of that concept cannot be real.

(1.1) Omnipotence, for example, may not be logically possible.

(1.2) Omniscience, too, is a difficult concept and cannot simply be granted by us as a real attribute.

(2) The lack of a successful proof for God. If we cannot even make something like the ontological argument work, then maybe it’s time to reason that we cannot prove God because there is no God.

(3) We are justified in believing that many things do not exist: Santa Claus, Superman, unicorns, and so on. What makes God an exception here?

(3.1) If there were a God, there would be a steady influx of direct, unambiguous evidence to reinforce the view that there is a God. Yet, there is no direct evidence and nothing that cannot be reasonably attributed to natural causes.

(4) Widespread human and non-human animal suffering contradicts the concept of God.

(4.1) The innocent and the assholes are equally available to misfortune.

(4.2) What did the animals do to deserve death and their bloody struggle for survival?

(5) Generally in biology and cosmology, naturalism provides the better explanations of phenomena over all theistic explanations.

(6) Probability favors physical causes over intelligent causes for generation of features/phenomena and for the appearance of order.

In sum, the real problem with God is --

It cannot really be explained, it cannot be proved, it fits nicely into a human strength for creating imaginary characters, it is deeply undermined by the problem of indiscriminate evil, it is not the best explanation for anything, and it’s the most improbable cause of observed reality.

The best case for Atheism, then, is...God.

Note: Special credit and thanks to the "Atheism" article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, from which much of the material in this post is based.