Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Women's Ministry

I have a theory about church calendars: they suck in people with social events that have nothing at all to do with theology, so the people become so dependent on the church that they really can't leave even if they do crack open the Bible and see what an incoherent mess it is.

In my case, just having a great organist was enough to keep me coming for awhile. As a child I kept going because I enjoyed singing in the choir. That's the Episcopalian way. It's probably why the Episcopal church is losing members. And now that the "faithful" are mainly blue-haired old ladies, it's too late to start up a softball team.

As I drove through small towns in Indiana over the weekend I kept wondering what there was do to in these places besides work the farm and go to church. Some of these towns were so small they didn't even have bars!

Some of the people I know here are in churches that fill up their schedules with the kind of thing you'd have to live in a small town to find interesting. In a big city you'd have a million more interesting things to do on a Saturday night. In a small town you might have a choice between church bingo and a spaghetti dinner at a different church.  So I have a bit of sympathy for small-town Christians.  They don't know any better.

Then there are the big-city megachurches.  I wondered how hard they work at providing for their sheeple's every social need.  So I took a look at the website for Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church.  Amazingly, they have a Women's Ministry.  Perhaps they figured out that Osteen is damn creepy so they put a woman in charge of keeping the women in line.  I know I'd never want to be in a room with that used car salesman.

Their schedule is truly frightening.  They have a series of psychobabble "courses" and they promote it with this lovely line:  "We would love for you to join us for the entire series and join your faith with ours to see God’s abundance brought forth in the area of your finances in 2011!"  (Osteen is famous for "prosperity theology")

They also have a movie night.  What does watching "Secretariat" and eating popcorn have to do with being a Christian? 

Osteen has also brought his wife into a leadership role as "co-pastor."  This is something I think I've seen before, though it's not like I obsess about churches.  Still... the preacher's wife is supposed to be a kind of adjunct preacher in these fundy churches.  Osteen and his wife have a blog together.  I'd post the header photo but it's just too creepy.  Their most popular post has this gem:  "Today, you may feel like you're in the back of the line and nothing is going your way, but get ready because God is about to turn things around for you!"

Yep, self-centered theology at its best!  I haven't read all their blog posts but I have read enough to be thorougly disgusted.  There's nothing about charity, kindness, being part of a loving society, etc.  Meanwhile, "evil" evolution is starting to probe how these behaviors are adaptive and part of our instinctive behaviors.

So.... it's not really theology that's appealing, though being taken care of by a sky-daddy after your death is a comforting idea.  The real draw for country people is having something to do, and for city people it's almost the same.  If you were new in Houston and wanted to make new friends, the ladies' night out movie and popcorn event would be a safe way to meet people.

Fortunately, in the age of the internet we can find friendships online or through online searches for events we find interesting.  If I were to move to Houston, I'd look for atheist meet-ups, or a club that would involve my hobbies.  If I were to move to small-town Indiana I probably wouldn't get out much, but I do wonder how long it would take for me to feel lonesome enough to go to the local church's spaghetti dinner or bingo night.   And then once I did I'd play "spot the other atheist" in the room, looking for the other people who roll their eyes at the mention of God or praying.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Punching People for Jesus!

This is hilarious!

It's funny how often atheists receive anonymous threats like this. Unlike the rest of us, who use most of our brains, Christians use only the amygdala. Speaking rationally to Christian trolls is a waste of time, unless you need a good LOL at the moment.

Alternative Explanations for the Miracles of the Bible

Let's start with the New Testament, since Christians are nuttier about believing the Bible to be historically accurate than Jews.

Virgin birth. There are many possibilities here.
  1. It's a meme of the religions of the time, and could easily have been attached to the mythology around Jesus after the religion started taking off. This story added credibility to Christian claims, because it's something the people would expect of a deity.
  2. Mary, or Joseph, or the family, or the followers, LIED. Not as likely as #1 above, but possible. Getting people to believe it wouldn't be as hard as it would be today.
  3. Mistranslation. The first writers/transmitters never said this but it got translated this way. And Catholicism loves it that way so they perpetrated it.
Food and Beverage Miracles.
  1. Completely made up.
  2. Something unusual happened that wasn't very impressive, so it was exaggerated to be worthy of mythical/miraculous status.
  3. Trickery.  The disciples put wine into water barrels, or had a stash of bread and dead fish at the ready. 
  4. Numerology.  Any time miraculous numbers are mentioned in the Bible you have to suspect a total dissociation from reality due to possible magic numbers being used to make some point.

 Healing. Really? We don't have to look further than examples of faith healing today to know that they could have been false then but here goes: 
  1. Lies. Gotta convince the masses to convert, so some miracle stories are in order. Easy stories to make up. It's not like people in Italy or even Lebanon would have been able to verify something like that.  How many people were named Lazarus?  You would be hard pressed even in a well documented society to figure out which one was named.
  2. Fakes. Shills brought out to fool the crowds. How hard would it be to fake a withered hand? Blindness? Lameness?
  3. Spontaneous healing, due to the effect of faith on the mind of the believer, not intervention by a deity or a magical power. Or, the person is so swept up in the moment they have momentary improvement. Did anyone follow up on these people a year later? No, of course not.
  4. Actual sick people being made to look more healed than they are. The disciples support the lame person in such a way that they seem to be walking, or straighten out the "withered hand" by force.
  5. Confirmation bias. Would Jesus' followers really document the many times he was unsuccessful? (assuming any of it is historical)
Miscellaneous points

The fig tree. My favorite. Jesus couldn't make the tree bear fruit out of season so he zapped it. Wouldn't making the tree bear fruit have been a much better miracle than setting it on fire? If this is historical at all, what is the time frame? Could it have been a set-up? Could it have been the highest point during a lightning storm?

Calming the storm. This sounds a lot like Moses parting the sea, so right there I suspect it's fabricated. If the writers are trying to convince the heathens that Jesus was indeed the heir to the Judaic tradition, having him do something Moses-like would be a good start.  This is probably the easiest thing to make up, and not being able to find witnesses wouldn't prove anything because lack of evidence would just be lack of evidence.  Could a storm suddenly stop on its own? Sure. It happens often enough that a coincidence is possible if there's historical accuracy to this story.  Confirmation bias here, too.  If you tell the sky to shut up often enough, one day it will obey you.

Turning water to wine.  This one is just stupid. It's not that hard to switch containers.

If you're going to believe the miraculous claims of one group of bronze-age people without question, you have to believe all of them.  I don't see Christians pointing to the miracles of other religions as evidence that miracles happen, only the ones from their own religion.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Comment Moderation is OFF!

People have been responding to the blog, and to each other, so I have taken comment moderation off.

Christians, bear in mind, most atheists who hang out on internet blogs have heard it all before and we weren't impressed.  You won't convert us but we find you entertaining.  We prefer thoughtful, reasoned, well-read Christians for our web entertainment, so if you're the typical Christian web troll who's going to threaten us WITH ETERNAL DAMNATION IN ALL CAPS AND WITH MENNY MYSPOILED WORDS... expect us to point and laugh.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Top Ten Grievances Against the Bible

1. Authority -- NOT -- it was compiled, copied, edited, codified and translated by men. Men with agendas. Over the hundreds of years it was put together there were perhaps hundreds of "hands" tinkering with the unalterable "holy" words.

2. Inconsistency. Two Adam & Eve stories. Two genealogies for Jesus. Discrepancies amongst the Gospels. Too many inconsistencies to mention, and anyway The Skeptics Annotated Bible did it already.

3. God's nature is fickle and inconsistent. He is forgiving or resentful depending on the situation. Sometimes he tinkers in the Affairs of Man and sometimes not. He wants you to follow his rules, but then there's the parable of the prodigal son. He made the world and all the animals, including people, and yet made all sorts of really horrible and stupid things. For instance, why do humans have "tail" bones if we don't have tails? Having broken mine I can tell you I'd rather not have it. If he wanted us to protect the useful parts of our spine in a fall, then why put nerve endings there?

4. Miracles. They have no corroboration outside of the Bible. They could have been faked or made up as propaganda or exaggerated over time. If Jesus really did walk on water, how do we know he didn't go there in advance and put a table just under the water line? How do we know there wasn't a sandbar there? And yet he couldn't make a fig tree yield fruit out of season, which would have been a more difficult feat than appearing to be walking on water. Couldn't pop the nails out of his hands and feet and jump off the cross, either.

5. Revelation. Dreams, voices, visions... they are all reminiscent of what today would be considered symptoms of psychosis. If they're psychotic symptoms now, they very likely would have been then, if they even happened. Primitive people can't be faulted for believing that dreams or migraine auras or psychotic breaks came from some supernatural entity, but we shouldn't believe them now. The opposite is possession by an evil spirit. Also mental illness that was misunderstood by bronze age superstitious people.

6. Scientific inaccuracy. God could have revealed the truth about the Sun revolving around the Earth, at the very least. All of God's words seem to be consistent with what humans would have known at the time, and not at all revelatory or helpful. Every human culture has a creation story. The Judeo-Christian-Muslim one is just one of many with no claim to accuracy in the least.

7. Similarity to mythologies in other Middle Eastern religions. Just a little too many similarities to dismiss. Mithras, for example.

8. Speaking of Paul, Paul's role is a little too important in early Christianity. He never met Jesus, yet he supposedly explains Christianity with authority. He has a completely different message from Jesus' supposed words. A lot of Biblical inconsistency right there. Why should anyone believe anything he said? None of it was of a nature that couldn't have come from psychosis, imagination, or calculation. If he was divinely inspired, he could have set people straight about the Sun, for instance.

9. The Book of John. Written much later than the other "gospels" and seems very biased. Coincidentally, "fundamentalist" Christians are fond of quoting John. They like his brand of Christianity so much that their whole theology would crumble if that "book" was taken out of the Bible.

10. Disturbing "morality." Over and over there are truly disgusting examples of God or his favorite people doing the most heinous things. The worst of all for me is the central tenet of Christianity: that Christ was sacrificed for the sins of mankind... all of us or some of us, depending on your denomination. This means that a "loving" God practiced scapegoating, punishing his one good child for the sinfulness of all the others. No actual sinning is required to be defined as a bad child, since sinfulness is inherited. Inheriting the "sins of the fathers" is also immoral. Other repugnant practices are portrayed without any negative judgment: war, genocide, polygamy, rape (but only of women!), and slavery to name a few. Then this "loving" God will send everyone who doesn't say they "accept" him to eternal fire and pain. What kind of "love" is that?

10a. Cannibalism. Yech! You can say it's just metaphorical and wine doesn't really turn into blood, but still, it's a repulsive practice and extremely barbaric. Early Christians already had the practice of baptism for the cleansing of sins, so they really didn't have to have eat their god in a repulsive ritual meal. That practice is also waaaay too similar to that of other religions to be taken seriously as a true historical tale.

I could probably come up with more but these are the big ones for me. Much ink has been spilt explaining the problems in the Bible. People get Ph.D.s in something aptly called "apologetics." They call the Book "god-breathed" or inspired rather than taking it as the literal gods-ear-to-man's-pen truth, because they know deep down it's really a bunch of ridiculous nonsense. To believe in this book is to believe in a God that's mercurial, vengeful, narcissistic, and possibly insane.

Or... you could believe that the Bible is just like all the other holy books of all the other religions, just a bunch of fairy tales with supernatural buddies and/or bullies as the main characters.

Some of my smaller grievances don't get much attention, but for what they're worth:
  • If all of creation was 'good' then wouldn't Adam & Eve have been exiled to a pretty nice place?
  • Why is it an "abomination" for men to have sex with men but not for women to have sex with women? Isn't that also homosexuality?
  • Why was there no judgment against Lot's daughters after they got him drunk then got pregnant by him? His wife was turned into a pillar of salt just for looking over her shoulder at her former home. That seems a little harsh.
  • If Jesus' conception was immaculate, then why does he have a genealogy traced through Joseph's side of the family?
  • And the fig tree, wtf? Why doesn't Jesus regret his temper tantrum if he's such a great guy? Come to think of it, why did he smite the tree in the first place? Is this some kind of metaphor that a woman who won't have sex during her off-cycle will be smote?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Prayer doesn't work. Really. It doesn't!

Intercessory prayer for the sick has been proven several times not to affect the outcome:
CONCLUSIONS: In patients with CFS [chronic fatigue syndrome], distant healing appears to have no statistically significant effect on mental and physical health but the expectation of improvement did improve outcome.
CONCLUSIONS: Distant healing or prayer from a distance does not appear to improve selected clinical outcomes in HIV patients who are on a combination antiretroviral therapy.
CONCLUSIONS: Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG [coronary artery bypass graft], but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.
INTERPRETATION: Neither masked prayer nor MIT therapy significantly improved clinical outcome after elective catheterisation or percutaneous coronary intervention.
CONCLUSIONS: As delivered in this study, intercessory prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes after hospitalization in a coronary care unit.
CONCLUSIONS: The effects of intercessory prayer and transpersonal positive visualization cannot be distinguished from the effect of expectancy. Therefore, those 2 interventions do not appear to be effective treatments.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

10 Reasons Why Christianity is Creepy

1. A "loving" father punishes his only good child

2. Christians are expected to partake in ritualistic metaphorical cannibalism

3. Christ's mother was an underage girl who was molested by "God"

4. Jesus' genealogy traces through his step-father. Hello? Either the Bible lied about the virgin conception by God, or it lies about Jesus' genealogy. Either way, the Bible lies.

5. Jesus was a zombie for a few days, said he would return, then didn't. Jesus lies.

6. God only loves us when we tell him we love him. That's called narcissism!

7. God changed his mind several times about marriage, depending on what suited the men of the time best. Polygamy? Little girls? Rich widows? Whatever...

8. Christ didn't say anything about slavery being wrong. In fact, he seems to have supported it.

9. The Bible was assembled by a committee, which seems a little suspect.

10. Your reward for a lifetime of leading a boring life is spending eternity in Heaven, which is even more unimaginably boring.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Psychosis and Christianity

No, this isn't yet another blog post calling Christians delusional. This is a blog post calling Christians out for their pathological denial of reality of mental illness.
Sure, Christianity as a whole has come around to the realization that many women burned as 'witches' were in fact mentally ill. They also realize that when someone says they heard the voice of God telling them to murder someone that the person is psychotic. Most of them believe L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith were crackers.

And yet they believe Moses really did see a burning bush and hear God's words through his external senses, not through some kind of seizure, migraine, or hallucination (assuming he existed at all). They believe the dream "science" of the Old Testament was legitimate. They believe Noah really did receive instructions from God on how to build a boat. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus was the act of a real supernatural entity affecting the mind of a sane person in a miraculous way. Mary really did hear God telling her to do the nasty with him and she'd have a holy child. Abraham's god really did speak to him out loud telling him to kill his own child.

Some of my Facebook friends are on the political and religious right. Since the shooting of Rep. Giffords et. al. turned out to be the work of someone with a 31-bullet clip of ammo and a high powered handgun, they are denying that mental illness affected behavior even in that case. No, we shouldn't restrict access to this kind of weapon for everyone -- people need to take responsibility for themselves -- guns don't kill people, people do, etc. They are completely oblivious to the reality that mental illness in society virtually guarantees that there will be people who can't take responsibility for themselves, or who will act on "voices" or ideas as strongly heard or felt as those heard and felt by Biblical figures. They also make the assumption that nobody who is "good" could be driven to do something like that. (That's why you can put crosshairs on maps and let any schmoe have a high powered weapon)

If you want to say that Moses, Abraham, Mary and Paul all had legitimate mental experiences, you are naturally prone to think that you can put guns into the hands of any random citizen because god would never tell someone to shoot at dozens of people within 10 seconds.

But there have been many cases of parents killing their children because they believed them to be possessed, or that God told them to do it. Where are these right-wingers when this happens? Why aren't they posting to Facebook how God must have known that those kids were no good, and that the world is better off without them? Why do those parents go to jail or the nut ward instead of being feted on the 700 Club and FOX News?

You just can't have it both ways. Either mental illness is real, and the Biblical stories of revelations, dreams, and voices were bronze-age explanations for what we now understand, or there is no mental illness and Hinckley, Manson, Loughren and baby-killers are God's warriors.
This supposedly unchanging God, stopped speaking to people and giving clear signs. Instead, he tells sane people to do what they wanted to do all along, and tells crazy people to do crazy things.
Shouldn't a God that speaks to people 1) be a little clearer 2) speak to psychotics and sane people the same way and 3) tell psychotics to take their medication?
When Judge Roll was in Mass minutes before his murder, why didn't God tell him to hang out with the priest for 20 minutes before going to the Giffords' event? Why didn't God tell the mother of the little girl to change her mind about letting her go? Or even better, why didn't God give the little girl a case of food poisoning and put her in bed for the day?
The inevitable answer to the question of God speaking to people is: It's all in the mind. It always was. It always is. It always shall be. There is no revelation, no divine intervention, no answer to prayer from any supernatural source.
Loughren's mental illness follows the course that many first psychotic breaks do: they begin gradually, become more and more overwhelming, psychosis takes the form of whatever the person's interests are, and the resultant personality change reflects their culture, personality, background, and the nature of their psychosis.
Ditto for Abraham, Noah, Moses, Joseph, Mary, Jesus, John, Paul, all the psychotics who made up these stories, and all the psychotics who see "visions" or "hear God's voice" today.
Because our culture puts tremendous pressure on people to believe the dominant belief system, I don't think it's delusional to go along with it. Most of us are force-fed this crap diet without having any say in the matter.
But adults, please, think about it. If someone were to come down from Mt. McKinley today and say they'd seen a burning bush and they had ten rules from God for you to live by, would you believe it?
No, you wouldn't.
That's reason enough not to believe it really happened and really was God 5,000 or so years ago. Grow up and have compassion for the mentally ill instead of worshipping them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

BE NOISY! Because Christians are hard to get through to

ugh ugh ugh ugh:

So... it's not okay to criticize outspoken religionists, but it's okay to criticize outspoken atheists.

If I don't post for awhile it's because I've injured myself pounding my head on my keyboard.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Much does an Atheist Need to Know about Christianity?

In the United States, a.k.a. God's Country, if you're not a Christian, you best be sumthin' else or else.... They can relate to their kissing cousins in other religions, and on the whole don't really question others' "choice" of religion. But if you're an atheist, expect to be challenged.

First, there's the atheism catechism. Christians assume that all religions ask and answer the same questions, so they believe an atheist must have asked and answered them too. "Where do you go when you die?" "If there's no rules there's mayhem, so what keeps you from killing and stealing?" "So you think you're God?"

Next, there's the no true atheist fallacy. You just don't "know Christ" well enough, or in the right way, or you haven't tried enough, or you're in denial. When you're in that foxhole, atheist, you're going to beg God to forgive your sins and let you into heaven.... but you better do it fast because unlike us Catholics who clean up our sins weekly, or us Baptists who got one good scrubbing, you have a lot of truth-telling to do! When that final minute comes, you'll change your tune!

Then there's the "angry-at-God" fallacy. They get angry at God all the time. It's a constant challenge for them to handle the many many unanswered prayers and acknowledge God's seeming indifference. They pray for everyone who gets sick, and not all of them get well. WTF? Hey how come Mr. Jerkface down the street wins the lottery and my house gets struck by lightning? Why does my chain-smoking father-in-law cling to life at 90 but my 3-month-old baby gets meningitis and dies? Yep, if there were a God, there would certainly be reason to be pissed at him. Luck is a much more fickle God than even the asshole god who lets babies die (so their pastor tells them). So atheists couldn't possibly intentionally place more "faith" in luck! You'll get over your anger as soon as someone you love goes into remission or you get a promotion, they assure us.

The funniest ones are the professional theologians. I gave up dialoging with one when he switched platforms but it was fun to watch the mental gyrations it takes for someone who's actually read the bible and studied its sources to keep up a belief in it. It's rather too easy to make them angry, too. They've faced their doubts, the bible's errors, the political history of their religion, and all the philosophical conundrums their belief system creates, and they've stared them down. In a metaphysical game of chicken, they're way out ahead of the rest of us. They'll toy with us unbelievers until they get frustrated by our lack of education, then finish us off with the ad hom that we just don't know what we're talking about so we're not justified being atheists.

I always interpret this as a win on my part, of course. If I ask why Jesus has two genealogies if 1) the bible is inerrant and 2) the gospels are historical and 3) he wasn't a descendent of Joseph... apparently I'm showing my ignorance. *snicker*

Today I was talking with a co-worker about the church I went to when I was still trying to believe. The sermons were very psychologically oriented, which made it worth the trip, but I knew the whole time I went that I didn't believe most of what I was mouthing on Sunday mornings. After this discussion I remembered part deux of that experience: Bible study.

I went to Bible Study because I thought that if I just understood the Bible better, I would come to believe that all that stuff was true and then I'd be a real Christian. Alas, I asked the wrong questions in Bible Study too. The one I remember best is when I defended Pontius Pilate. It went something like this: If Jesus was destined from the beginning to be sacrificed, then Pilate must have been part of the plan, so Pilate was really carrying out God's will. Besides, under the circumstances, Pilate didn't have a lot of choices.

That didn't go over too well.

So... how much do you have to know? Do you have to know more than the theologian with a Ph.D.? more than a pastor with a seminary degree? More than your Sunday School or Bible Study teacher?

Shhhhh don't tell Christians, but if you don't believe the fairy tales in the first place the more you learn the more ridiculous Christianity seems.

One of the top apologists for Christianity is, in my opinion, on the ropes. He claims that belief in God is "properly basic," which means that none of the arguments against Christianity and God mean squat if you believe what you believe. ...I think. Sadly, I've never put my head so far up my arse as to be able to type in philosobabble, so I'll let William Lane Craig mumble for himself:

Yes, he really is as stupid as he seems:

Correlation or Causation?

The attack on Rep. Giffords brought many thoughts to mind, including the issue of women in politics. In the 1970s, when I was learning what my limitations would be in this world as a female, women were just starting to get a toehold in the big wide world outside of the kitchen. Women like Bella Abzug led the way, proving that it's okay to be ugly and smart as long as you're Jewish. (ditto, Joan Rivers, one of my heroes). You could have a public career if you were a female Christian, but it had to be something girly, like writing cookbooks or advice columns. Then of course Phyllis Schafley came along and made a living saying that women shouldn't work for a living. She's the one who really convinced me I didn't have to buy that Christian bullshit about women being Less-Than.

So... anyway... an asshole schizo male shoots a smart, successful female politician and I had to wonder... how many women are out there with targets on their backs? I found a MAP! And looky! Coincidentally, there are more women in state legislatures in "blue" states than in the red stripe up the middle. My current unfortunate geographic choice has about 20% females among the elected officials.

Correlation, causation, or coincidence?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Power of Prayer?

People are praying for Representative Giffords, which is very nice of them. Meaningless but nice. She's in a medically-induced coma so she doesn't know they're praying. If she knew they were praying for her she might have a somewhat better outcome, but she doesn't so they're wasting their time.

Or are they?

They are the ones reaping any benefit. We all want to be able to help people in need, and that's a good thing. It's frustrating when there's nothing we can do, so prayer offers us that salve to our conscience.

By "us" I mean "they" of course.

Christians have claimed that any neuroscience that explains prayer or belief shows that God intended humans to be believers and made the brain that way. A better explanation is that evolution resulted in a species that survived by cooperation and community. The instinct to intervene when disaster happens, to care for the injured and sick, and to pull together in a crisis is an evolutionary advantage for us humans. We don't all have to be that way for the species to have arrived at our current state, but enough of us are for us to have survived well enough to populate the planet.

So it's only natural that when we can't help in a tangible way, our frustration is difficult to tolerate. Turning to a supernatural entity seems like the only resort. Then when the outcome is positive we credit the supernatural entity, which makes us even more likely to pray in the future.

A reporter asked one of the doctors who worked on Rep. Giffords about what he thought was the reason for her relatively good outcome so far. He ran down a list of all the people who helped her starting from the first moment after her injury, to the surgical staff. Then he added "And luck" for having a survivable wound.

He didn't credit any sky-daddy at all! I bet the reporters in the room heaved a disappointed sigh. TV news loves to report and repeat instances where God gets the credit for good news.

But then there's Judge Roll, who was killed ... right after praying at Mass... because he was "in the wrong place at the wrong time." He had been threatened in the past, and he wasn't the target when he was killed. His demise was an unfortunate instance of bad luck. Likewise, the other victims.

Any time there is a disaster in which there are both fatalities and survivors, the fallacy of counting only the "hits," or confirming instances, rears its head. This time the news that I've seen seems to be holding back on that, though survivors haven't been interviewed yet. I'm encouraged to hear "luck" mentioned. The people who died and the people who lived were both the target of random chance, dependent on the shooter's will and skill, not any sky-daddy's intervention.

We don't like luck. It evens the playing field, and we all want an advantage. But acknowledging the role of luck or chance and learning to cope with the frustration of not being able to influence it is part of growing up.

Deconversion is more than just deciding that certain beliefs are bogus. It's also a gradual process of learning to deal with frustrations such as this. Prayer won't help Rep. Giffords. She doesn't need our blood donation. Her doctors and family are caring for her. We're just bystanders watching the TV news. We can't do anything for her, though we would if we could.

Despite all Christian hoopla to the contrary, most people are nice to other people. Most people would help a person in need if possible. Most of us want to see the rest of us survive and prosper. And that includes atheists.

Science changes its mind again! oh noes!

This week we have another example of science being self-correcting. Andrew Wakefield's "data" blaming vaccination for autism turns out to have been fraudulent. The motive? He was paid by a legal team that planned use the data in lawsuits. How many thousands of children were denied a much-needed vaccine because their parents believed this study?

Of course there was controversy before and after this study. It wasn't "the last word" but it was cited by the anti-vaccination pseudo-science camp, because they needed some "reliable" data to back up their claims. Most responsible doctors and scientists didn't pay much attention to it because there was so much evidence on the other side. But the "believers" loved the bad news. Even if other scientists came up with different results, they had their guy and their study to point to. Most of the sheeple in the anti-vaccination movement won't look for contrary data, but even if they did, the leaders of this "religion" had a fall-back position of "If the experts disagree, then wouldn't it be better to err on the safe side?" It's a medical version of Pascal's wager.

Authority is the main issue dividing believers from skeptics/non-believers, in my opinion. Believers don't just trust their authority figures. They trust that authority itself means "unchanging," and so they won't admit contrary information even if it comes from "trustworthy" sources. This is true of religious people, New Agers, and conspiracy theorists alike. And they will cling to their authority figure even if dozens of authority figures argue contrary positions and back them up with good data.

Fortunately for the world's children, epidemiologists and pediatricians are scientists. They trust the process rather than authority. They know that "information" can change, and the good ones will keep up with the latest research in order to make the best decisions. We everyday non-scientists have put our trust in them though, so they become authority figures for us.

And we don't like change. We want what we learned in middle school science to stay the same. Absorbing new information is exhausting. There's so much of it, and even if we could find it and understand it, how do we know what is "right" when "even the experts disagree?" Medical "journalists" love reporting on the shifting sands of research. They are just as guilty as Wakefield, perhaps more.

We have to trust the judgment experts. And think of how many we trust! We may need a doctor, lawyer, auto mechanic, dentist, veterinarian, exterminator, elevator inspector, 747 pilot, etc. We can't possibly learn what we might need to know about all those fields. Heck, they can't know it all either. Good ones have a network of colleagues to confer with, and there are researchers behind all the people we meet who have been putting together the data to arrive at the conclusions that they pass along in their services.

The scientists behind our technological culture are supposed to be following a code of ethics, but even if they aren't, science will correct the lies because that's what science does. The stance of researchers could be summed up as "Trust but verify." They know that results can be ambiguous, accidental, erroneous or fabricated. The first scientist puts out the preliminary results and accompanying theory, then others set about testing whether the results were valid. So what happened this week is exactly what's supposed to happen: after repeated testing without replication of results, the original study is discredited. The motives of the original researcher really don't matter. Wrong is wrong. Science moves on.

Religion is the opposite. God is the ultimate authority, not data. The people who become the "authorities" on God have hallucinations (like Moses) or suffered a psychotic break (like Paul), or have simply read enough and thought enough about the subject to be smarter than the average person. Priests, pastors, rabbis, imams... they are the auto mechanics of the soul. They study the manual and work things out so you don't have to.

Christians are in a funny bind that way. They accept the authority of Moses, but not of Muhammed. They trust their pastor/minister/priest to discern the truth of the Bible but not an outsider. They even cling to the King James Bible because it has that ring of authority that only outdated grammar can achieve.

New evidence from archaeology, astronomy, biology, and psychology falls on deaf ears amongst a huge segment of Christians (and some other religionists too). They cling to discredited "facts" because to question any of them would be to question their authority figures, right up the chain to God. They also don't want to modify their beliefs because they never put much thought into them in the first place. If they question one tenet that they had blindly accepted as children, then how many others could be up for debate? Religion was taught to them in stories and songs, not in academic journals. They just had to learn the basic points and memorize some words, and they were all set. And deep down they worry that they are living in a house of cards.

Andrew Wakefield's license has been revoked, but I predict his believers won't be deterred. Just like Christians, Jews, Christian Scientists, New Agers, and all the rest, they will continue to point to his "research" as "proof" in shoddy books and websites, and ignore the overwhelming research that contradicts it.

ahhh I can already hear the voice of the Christian internet troll "But you atheists have made up your minds and you won't be convinced no matter what proof is offered!"

  • Reminder #1: Most of us were brought up as believers, just as you were
  • Reminder #2: Most of us would accept definitive proof of the supernatural. It just doesn't exist.
  • Reminder #3: Most of the "proof" offered by Christians has either been debunked thoroughly or is of a nebulous nature in a difficult to research area, such as neurobiology.
  • Reminder #4: The ad hominem is the last resort of the losing debater. The "tu quoque" (Oh yeah? You too!) is the weakest of the ad homs.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Jesus vs Shirley MacLaine

Christians have no trouble dismissing Shirley MacLaine's hokum, but they seem completely blind to the thinness of the claims for Christianity.

Let's see how well they compare:

  • Jesus (supposedly) claimed to fulfill the historic prophesy of the Hebrews.
  • MacLaine's website points to the writings of known historical figures, and these people supposedly back up her claims. Unlike Jesus' prophets, MacLaine's list of luminaries includes people from various epochs, cultures, and walks of life. (Though, strangely, none of them was one of her prior selves)
  • Jesus' exploits are written down in four books called "The Gospels," which were most likely written 60-100 years after his death/resurrection.
  • Shirley MacLaine wrote eight books about herself (herselves?), and a few other people have written about her. She's also been interviewed dozens of times, and she wrote her own biography for her site. In fact, it's hard to shut her up. So she's much better documented than Jesus.
  • The Bible gives us rules to live by, and guidance for everyday decisions. Shirley MacLaine's website includes a daily horoscope, which is much more specific and useful.
  • Christianity gives its adherents a community for mutual support.
  • Shirley MacLaine's community includes a forum, a chat room, and an e-mail newsletter. You don't have to dress up on Sunday morning, just log on and chat in your jammies.
  • Jesus Christ rose on the third day and he lives in the souls of Christians.
  • Shirley MacLaine is alive today, and judging by the number of times she's been reincarnated, is likely to be reincarnated again, though three days might be a little fast.
  • Christ spent 40 days in "the wilderness."
  • Shirley MacLaine went on the pilgrimmage to Santiago. It took her 30 days. A pretty long time considering she was twice the age Jesus was when he went camping.
  • Christians, on the whole, are pretty nice people, because they fear going to Hell and hope to go to Heaven.
  • People who believe in reincarnation tend to be pretty nice people, because they fear returning as cockroaches or meth heads, and hope to return as Shirley MacLaine.
  • Jesus said (supposedly) "I am the way, the truth, and the light."
  • Shirley said "I'm a Taurus."
  • Jesus has inspired miraculous conversions, including Paul's conversion.
  • Christians can persuade God to heal them through prayer, and really popular Christians can get prayed for in prayer circles.
  • Shirley's forum has a "Healing Circle" section where people can put in requests for "healing energy."
  • Christianity must be valid, because so many people believe in it.
  • Shirley MacLaine's books have sold millions of copies, and her website is popular.

Well? I think Shirleyism has just as much claim as Christianity for the souls of humanity. How about you?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

How much science does an atheist need to know?

Over and over I see people claiming that the antidote (or antipode?) to religion is science, or perhaps the scientific method. For some of the Big Questions that religion is supposed to answer, that is indeed true. It's sad that so many religionists refuse to accept evolution as the answer to how humans became what we are, but if history is any guide they'll come around. Eventually they decided that the Earth does indeed revolve around the Sun.

The problem for theists, and especially Christians, is that even if they can accept advances in the "hard" sciences and biology, they cling to theology for the other Big Questions. And here they assume that because science threw out parts of Genesis that it will eventually displace everything else the Bible provides.

I think this science issue is why there seem to be so few female athiests. My generation was discouraged from studying science. In my case it was so extreme that my mother refused to give me permission to take AP physics & calculus because "what do you need to learn that stuff for? you're just going to get married and have kids." I also remember receiving such lovely gifts for holidays and birthdays as a Ouija Board, ESP cards, and other nonsense.

When I read blogs and books written by atheists the subject of Science vs Belief comes up quite often. I think you could easily throw out all the sciences and reject belief on your own, though the scientific method and a little logic would help get you there.

For instance, there are many religions in the world. Can they all be true? If you believe they're all true, then you are polytheistic, but most people reject at least some of the other religions as untrue.

If you want to take the position that some religions are true but not others, you need a basis for judgment. From the comments I've seen from theists posting to blogs, the most popular basis is the ad populum. Religions are valid if enough people believe in them. A billion Muslims can't be wrong, can they? So you could draw the line at 1% of the population or more being "right." Christians would of course make an exception for Jews because they are kissing cousins of Christians. They could dismiss Scientologists, Satanists, and Neo-Pagans without regret or further justification this way.

But the Judeo-Christian commandment to "have no other god before me" has been interpreted as "have no other god." So here we say to the Jew, Christian, or Muslim, of all the religions in the world, only one can be right. How do you know that yours is right? If you can't tell for sure which is right, shouldn't the default position be to believe they're all equally wrong?

Reading Randal Rauser's blog I found out that when pushed into this corner the academic wing of Christianity has resorted to calling belief (in their own version of religion of course) "properly basic." This means it requires no justification, just explanation. The everyday Christian resorts to the feeling they get when they worship or think about God as their justification.

While I respect their feelings, their position basically validates all other religions as well, since the adherents of those religions also "feel the spirit." It's not a big leap from "I feel the spirit" to "I feel something which I interpret as a spirit." So unless you're going to validate all other spirits and all other religions, there needs to be some justification for why only one spiritual experience is valid.

Some adherents get around this by acknowledging that other spiritis exist, but calling them "devils" or some such scary opposite of the spirit they like. This isn't quite like acknowledging other gods, since these devils' greatest power would be to drag the soul away from the preferred spirit. But it still doesn't say why one spirit that appears to be warm and fuzzy is superior to other warm & fuzzy spirits.

Coincidentally, the religious right a.k.a. evangelicals, rebel against religious "diversity," don't like having someone with the middle name "Hussein" running the government, and don't want their kids going to public schools. When faced with other religions, and seeing that the adherents of those other religions aren't trying to kill them, they have to admit that their belief is just one of many and not all that special.

Hassidic Jews and some Muslims also put their heads in the sand. In Brooklyn there are religious schools for all three traditions. The children never meet each other except in passing, and are instructed to not to talk to outsiders.

Religion can't exist without either a strong indoctrination program or cultural hegemony. It's a product of the human imagination, and the original stories are equal in validity to fairy tales or fables.

See? No science. One can conclude that religion is based on comforting fairy tales and promoted through cultural means, and that therefore one's own religion and those of others are all false, without any scientific background.

If you do decide that you have burning questions about the nature of the universe, you can read up on the best current thinking, bearing in mind that new information does sometimes change the "facts" as you learn them. There are books and wiki articles that aren't hard to absorb. You might need a dictionary for some of it, but that's part of learning and growing. But it's not necessary for non-belief.

"I don't believe" is all that atheism says about a person. There is no catechism, no reading list, no authority figure, no pithy quotations, and no sacred text. Being a "free thinker" is challenging, but it's also liberating. You can remain ignorant of some things if you want to. Christianity has its default position of "The Lord works in mysterious ways" to respond to the Unknown. My default position is "there's probably a good scientific explanation for this, but I don't have time to figure it out." Knowing that I could figure it out if I applied myself and had the inclination is much more comforting than imagining some fickle supreme being has decided not to reveal it for his own reasons.