Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Simple Test of Religious Evidence

It occurred to me today that there is a fairly simple way to deal with people who say they have “evidence” which supports their faith. We may scoff at the idea that they have evidence, but they believe they do.

The evidence they might proffer on behalf of their god are on these lines:

1. Book This – We have the Holy Scriptures which is the inerrant word of God. In the case of some more moderately religious people – We have the Holy Scriptures which are inspired texts showing us the way God wants us to live our lives – some of it symbolic.

2. Fueled by Prayer – We have prayed to God and our prayers were answered. We know that God doesn’t answer every prayer, because sometimes people pray for the wrong things, pray without being in the proper humble spirit, or simply because God knows things that we don’t. But many times he does answer.

3. It’s a Miracle! – We have seen many miracles over the ages. Admittedly, God hasn’t done any of the really big and impressive stuff lately, but there are little miracles every day. Faithful families on the verge of ruin have had their lives completely turned around overnight; they have been in horrendous accidents and survived; they have been told they would never have children and yet the wife became pregnant; they have been diagnosed with an illness that was certain to take their lives in a short time and went on to live for decades, etc.

4. It’s Alive! – God speaks to me, personally. I have a relationship with Him and have heard His Word on many occasions. I know for a fact that god is real and I'm giving you my personal testimony.

If you can think of additional lines of evidence that the religious might reach for, feel free to include them in your mind at this point and then we’ll take them all to my simple test.

After you have allowed them to lay out their evidence, ask them this question: which of these pieces of “evidence” would be allowed in a U.S. court of law if god were on trial to determine his actuality? Would any of the above (or any of the additional facts you may have thought of) be admissible as evidence on god’s behalf? If they are knowledgeable about the law, they will have to concede that none of it would be admitted. No case could be made in court for the existence of god. Now you would think that if there is such a high certainty of his existence that at least some piece of evidence would be good enough to pass the muster of our legal system. Case closed – there is no evidence for god.

On the other hand, Don Exodus brings evolution to court and has his evidence admitted by Judge John Evo.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Two completely different climate change articles. Or are they?

Let’s see if we can find any connection between them. In the first story, we find out that greenhouse gases rose sharply in 2007.

Last year alone global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the primary driver of global climate change, increased by 0.6 percent, or 19 billion tons. Additionally methane rose by 27 million tons after nearly a decade with little or no increase. NOAA scientists released these and other preliminary findings today as part of an annual update to the agency’s greenhouse gas index, which tracks data from 60 sites around the world.

And later in the article:

Viewed another way, last year’s carbon dioxide increase means 2.4 molecules of the gas were added to every million molecules of air, boosting the global concentration to nearly 385 parts per million (ppm). Pre-industrial carbon dioxide levels hovered around 280 ppm until 1850. Human activities pushed those levels up to 380 ppm by early 2006.

The rate of increase in carbon dioxide concentrations accelerated over recent decades along with fossil fuel emissions. Since 2000, annual increases of two ppm or more have been common, compared with 1.5 ppm per year in the 1980s and less than one ppm per year during the 1960s

There is still a fairly large contingent of people who honestly believe that while there seems to be global climate change occurring, there is no proof that it is human induced and, further, that it is beyond our control. This is despite the bulk of scientific evidence running contrary to such a viewpoint. And, even if you accept the position, would it not be better for us on a number of levels to curtail the waste products we dump in our air and oceans? What’s the downside of taking the warnings seriously?

The only downside is the apparent “suffering” of multi-national corporations that are directly involved in making enormous profits off keeping the status quo for as long as possible. Which brings us to the second article; government interference at the scientific level. This is nothing new under the bureaucrats of the Bush Administration. There is surprise however in the level of interference.

...political appointees have edited scientific documents, manipulated scientific assessments, and generally sought to undermine the science behind dozens of EPA regulations." The study found the White House Office of Management and Budget to be the worst culprit. A stunning "889 scientists (60 percent of respondents) personally experienced at least one incident of political interference during the past five years," while "among EPA veterans (scientists with more than 10 years of experience at the agency), 409 (43 percent) said interference occurred more often in the past five years than in the previous five-year period."

It’s pretty clear how these two stories connect. I won’t insult you by going into details.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Torture - It's nothing new to Christians

I’m tempted to point out that sitting through a 2 hour “revival” meeting is proof enough that Christians employ torture without remorse. Unfortunately, it would be nice if this post could contain such a trivial complaint.

Start by reading this. From the article: "If this pro-torture stand was Dobson's alone, there would be little attention paid to it. But last month an ethics professor, Daniel R. Heimback, at Southeastern Baptist Seminary, favors torture much as Dobson does. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders also favor torture. A Baptist Press (BP) release reported that to oppose torture "threatens to undermine Christian moral witness in contemporary culture." They went on to say that situation ethics necessitates that sometimes torture is the right thing to do." (Author's emphasis)

Torture, of course, was a mainstay of the Inquisition. 300 years of slavery was perpetrated primarily by Christian nations. In the last century, Jews were either directly persecuted by Christians or, at the very least, had their murders largely ignored by the surrounding Christian community. And now it is Muslims who can suffer outrages with god’s immunity for their attackers. Do we detect a persistent patern?

This is why we have every right to criticize religion, even with the knowledge that our words are somewhat hurtful. People will cry out “but look at all the good Christianity does”. But if it can’t even rise to the occasion during blatant atrocity then what good is it as a moral institution? The Christians who, themselves, are against torture will claim this is an unfair attack. But it’s not! It’s a completely evenhanded assessment. There is nothing in the Christian code that makes it absolutely clear, for all Christians, at all times, that torture is grossly immoral. And that means the Christian religion is objectively useless when it comes to morality. If it can't instruct us unfailingly about such matters, then it is not needed for any moral issue. We can err on our own, without the supernatural trappings of religion!

Simply being an atheist does not give me moral insights as to the propriety of torture. Atheism itself has nothing to say about morality either way. So if I don’t get my morals from atheism, and I certainly don’t get them from god, then where do they come from?

All morality comes from evolution. It started with kin selection. It improved and spread with reciprocal altruism. It was codified by the early tribes and kingdoms. It has been finely tuned by humanistic tendencies of modern democratic philosophies. We really have no need for gods to tell us how to behave in such manner as both the individual and the society flourish. But if the god in question (Yahweh) can’t, at the very least, confirm these naturally evolved predispositions, we would all be better off if that particular god was absent from the playing field.

Monday, April 21, 2008

It's good for Hillary, and even better for me

If you were lucky enough to have listened to the latest edition of Another Goddamned Podcast, you may have heard Ordinary Girl’s impassioned defense of Hillary Clinton for the pounding she has taken due to her gender. While I support Barack Obama, don’t like the way Hillary has campaigned against him, and hope that she soon drops out of the race, I have to agree with OG to a certain extent.

The hatred of Hillary is way disproportionate to the reality of the person she is. It always has been. I believe (no empirical evidence for this) that if she had been the wife of Dick Cheney and a die-hard conservative, there would be an intense dislike of her on the left, but it would have virtually nothing to do with her gender.

As it is, she is currently receiving the wrath of those of us who support Obama, but there is venomous dislike for her on the right and, I think in this case, a lot of it does have to do with gender. Again, I have no evidence to support this.

As a male, I’ve been privy to many discussions in which females were not present. Naturally you can not put a big emphasis on this type of anecdotal evidence. But it’s worth remembering that I’m a pretty liberal guy and the types of people I associate with are hardly hard-core, conservative males. If I’ve repeatedly heard gender-based insults cast at Hillary, I can only imagine how much of it goes on in other, more macho circles.

Some might wonder why I’m interested in this. Fairness for Hillary? Why bother with that at a time like this, when I see this election as so important and Obama the best person for the job? Is it because I’m such a big supporter of women’s issues?

I do indeed like to see myself as someone who is willing to stand up for those who have not had a fair shake. Equal rights for women is an important issue. It’s one of many issues that I take an interest in. I would be inclined to speak up for gays or lesbians that were being mistreated, minority ethnic groups or even persecuted religious groups. But there is an additional reason.

More and more I’m becoming convinced that I must always question my motives for anything and everything. It doesn’t mean being indecisive, equivocating and changing my mind constantly, but it does mean being vigilante and examining issues from multiple angles and not allowing my mind to fall for pat answers that are almost too perfect. Life is full of subtle texture. The more I think something is perfectly clear, it’s very likely that I’m being lazy in the use of my rational mind. It’s so convenient to throw everyone and everything into categories of good and bad and smugly think I’m on the “right” side.

While watching recently, I heard one of the most cogent defenses of Hillary yet, from a man I really respect – Glenn Loury of Brown University. Glenn is an African American man, about my age and he still supports Hillary. I think it’s time for him to give up that ghost, but he gives some important points to keep in mind, even if you want Obama to triumph.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Obama - Logic tells us how dangerous he is

I have some real concerns here and I want to approach them with the rational thought process that I like to think I have. I figure I’m about no more intelligent than the average American – nor much less. Let’s get to the bottom of the issues that I care about when thinking about who I would like to lead our nation.

The Reverend Wright thing is very, very troubling. I have heard sound bites from, I assume, thousands of hours of preaching the old man must have done over the years. I admit that they seem to show the same 5 minutes or so worth of outrageous statements but, still, he did make them. Anyway, the point is, I don’t think I can feel comfortable with a President who was a part of a church in which these words were said. I think these words must reflect directly on Obama and how he feels about our unimpeachable nation. If the United States of America is not above criticism and occasional disrespect, what is?

The lack of a lapel flag pin is perhaps a key piece of logical evidence in the case I’m drawing up here. Why would he not wear one? Yes, of course I’ve seen many pictures of many Republican Congressmen and Senators who didn’t have a lapel pin flag on. But they aren’t running for President. Well, in fairness to Obama, McCain is one of those Senators but I think we can exclude him. He is a war hero. He was tortured for six years, cracked, and yet came back a whole man – as far as anyone knows. And along these lines there is a very disturbing picture of Obama without his hand over his heart. I hear that they were not saying the Pledge at that moment; that it was during the National Anthem. It’s still an indicator of something we all need to give a lot of thought to.

Obama has been seen in the company of a former member of the Weather Underground, William Ayers. Supposedly he and Ayers were on some sort of a committee to help poor people and once Ayers even donated $200 to Obama’s Senate campaign. What does this tell me about what Obama would do as President? I don’t even want to say, but I’m sure you can figure it out.

What will America be like, with a guy like this in office? His wife even seems to have a problem with our country and his middle name is Hussein.

If you use reason to examine all of these key issues you can only come to one conclusion – I’m not an average American. I must be a fucking genius and the country is full of fucking morons who, if they bothered to read this were probably nodding along and saying “Preach it, brother”!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I get orgasmic!

At the thought of Dick Cheney getting THIS "tap on the shoulder" someday.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Morality beyond religion

I have a personal hypothesis that I’d like to offer based on my reading of “The Moral Animal” (talked about in my previous post). I think that it’s probably the case that religion is not “in our genes” (despite this humorous look at the subject). This would be important, if true, because it would seemingly make it much easier to weed out of culture. Not that we couldn’t get rid of it even if it were genetic. It's "genetic" to have sex by whatever means necessary and to do so with the explicit and sole reason of pregnancy. Most of us have gotten beyond these two genetic imperatives.

So let’s look at religion as merely a vessel which, conveniently for our ancient and unknowledgeable ancestors, carried morals and also answers to what are now simple scientific questions.

Many of the anciently evolved morals of various societies converged on common truths of necessity in advanced social creatures. Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t do anything that you don’t want done to you. All of these emerge quite naturally from reciprocal altruism. But once they have emerged, to what authority did the brightest of our ancestors appeal for authoritative agreement?

The most convenient authority would be the entity that folk tradition assigned the various inexplicable random tragedies and “bizarre” occurrences. We would all it "God". They almost certainly didn’t. But they had some name for “it” or “them”. Lightening, earthquakes, floods, fires, eclipses, stars, moon, sun, death – all were given some explanation and it wasn’t a scientific one back in 1 million B.C.

If a band of hominids could be convinced by their leader that the same entity(s) responsible for all of these calamities, strange occurrences and unusual objects (a deity they must have all been terrified of) was also ordering them to behave in a proscribed manner, it would greatly facilitate compliance.

Granting this much, you will also grant that many other behaviors would get added in. I won’t go into the reasoning that Robert Wright employs in the afore mentioned book regarding why we have had some of the sexual morals (justifiable from the perspective of Natural Selection, but not necessarily from the minds of rational hominids), but it is understandable how they would have been included in the “god orders”.

Most of the great “unanswerable” questions remained that way throughout 99.9% of our evolutionary history. They would have had many millennia to embed themselves in every culture (in various ways) throughout the world. One thing that is understood from evolutionary psychology is that there is great flexibility in human consciousness, and this is why great import is also assigned to environmental factors (they just aren’t the "be all and end all"). It’s within that realm of flexibility that we see cultural variants of common themes.

We are no longer in that past 99.9% of our ancestral environment. We are in the .1% that we fondly call “now”. And we now have the knowledge that allows us to maintain the evolved morals that make sense and to discard those that are artifacts of ignorance.

While none of this is brilliantly insightful on my part, it is well worth keeping in mind as we confront theists on the issue of "how do you have morals without a god"?

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Moral Animal

Yes, that’s what we are - though not as moral as we’d like to imagine. Robert Wright wrote a great book back in 1994. I’ve had it on my “to read” list forever and finally decided that I just had to read “The Moral Animal. Why We Are Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology”. I’m glad I did and very happy to recommend it to anyone interested in the evolution of morals and ethics, how evolution has hidden our deepest drives and how it is responsible for the 1st sentient creature – one who thinks it understands the “self” but can’t possibly until individuals examine themselves in light of evolutionary psychology.

He also demonstrates quite effectively that we need not fear the new science as being like the Social Darwinism of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As Wright so beautifully puts it, the first creature to have evolved to the point where it can look upon its creator (Natural Selection) has also turned its back on the values that make it work so beautifully. In reality, there are no “values” to Natural Selection. It’s a mindless algorithmic process.

Now that we are able to understand how morals evolved, and what their purposes have been in various societies, it’s time for us to reevaluate them. Which morals need to be held on to and which discarded? I think most atheists, never having read a powerful book like this, will still have a pretty good idea what direction we should go.

Anyway, if you love studying evolution like I do, then this is a can’t miss read on an aspect of it that is still in it’s infancy, yet still so elegant and parsimonious that there can be little doubt that the theory is in large part correct.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Hillary’s flawed logic for staying in the race

It’s a very close race. Let the voters decide. Don’t disenfranchise those who haven’t spoken yet. We’ve won the big states. It’s not over.

All of that would sound very reasonable to a fair-minded person. If it were true, maybe it would be. But she has it all wrong. I could use the space here to attack Hillary on a lot of other issues that make the skin crawl. Instead, I’ll just stick to the facts and her inability to grasp them. Possibly her close advisers can clue her in. Maybe give her a little refresher course in Logic 101.

It’s not a close race. She could conceivably go into the convention with nearly as many pledged delegates as Obama. All she need do is win every single one of the remaining 10 states and get about 75% of the vote in the process. That’s how “close” things are right now. Especially when you consider that there are a couple of the remaining states that are absolute slam-dunks for Obama, and a number of others that Hillary has no chance of winning by a 60-40% margin, let alone the 75-25% she needs in every one of the remaining primaries. And again, that would do nothing except get her close.

Depending on how you count things, Obama has anywhere from a 5% to 10% lead in total pledged delegates and committed Superdelegates. The Clintons would have us believe that this is a very close total. Hey, if you go with that low 5% it’s almost within the margin for error.

I beg your pardon? "Margin for error" is reserved for polls, not for actual votes. If you are up by 5% in actual vote, it isn’t “maybe only 1%”. It’s 5%! If she were down by 5% with 90% of the votes yet to be tabulated, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But since nearly 90% of all the votes have already been cast, there is no reasonable chance of making up a lead of that size. Let alone if the 10% number is closer to the truth.

Hillary and Bill would also like us not to disenfranchise those poor souls in Florida and Michigan. Where was their concern for “disenfranchising” these voters at the beginning of the primary season, when the DNC told the states that if they stuck to their plans for early primaries then their votes wouldn’t count? Hillary could have screamed about this "disenfranchisement". Instead, she supported it!

Bill Clinton is asking us to let all of the remaining states vote? Well, of course we will, Bill. It’s part of the process. But there is nothing unusual about primaries occurring after it’s already clear who the nominee will be. It’s the nature of a process that does one state at a time, over many months. It used to happen to us all the time in California, back when we held primaries in June. Many times the Presidential Primary part of the election was nothing more than a beauty contest.

There is also no advantage in having “won the big states”. Again, it’s a party primary. Just because you won the primary against someone in your own party, there is no reason to assume you will win that same state in the General Election (or the equally faulty logic that your win means that your opponent will lose). Often, a state will vote Democrat or Republican regardless of who the parties puts up as their nominees. If a state is heavily Democratic, Hillary wins the primary, then you can just about bet that Obama will win the state in the General. What difference does Hillary think it means that she won that state?

It’s 3 A.M. Your kids are in bed asleep. A phone is ringing in the White House. It’s a zombie on the phone. She isn’t logical enough to realize she is dead, and lie down in her grave.

Oh, it’s over Hillary. The only questions are – how ugly are you going to make this and how easy for the GOP to make John McCain the next President of the United States?