Archive for January, 2009

Atheist’s Doubt

I came across a rather fascinating post this morning, in which various questions are posed to atheists. I have a problem with how more than a few of them are worded, but there’s one in particular that I wanted to address. Go and have a look at the others, though, as they’re well worth reading. One of them is from Gregory Koukl, who I’ve complained about here before, and there’s also a hypothetical question from Alvin Plantinga. I’ve read a few of his papers, so it would have been great to see an actual question from him.

Historian Mike Licona: “Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?”

Firstly, I’d object to the word ‘troubling’. It’s a near-universal practice to assume that any ‘challenge’ to one’s worldview should be considered a source of intellectual anguish, which seems like a rather weird way of looking at things. Whenever I come across something that makes me doubt my atheism, I pursue it as far as I can out of interest and the possibility that it may change my mind, but I can’t say I’m ever troubled by it.

Probably the most potent theistic argument I know if the ‘fine-tuning’ one, for the simple reason that no easy rebuttal to it exists. Many atheist would claim otherwise, but a full explanation for the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe would require scientific knowledge far beyond what we currently know – indeed, it may require scientific knowledge beyond what we can ever know.

That is not to say that I find the fine-tuning argument convincing, obviously. It makes too many unwarranted assumptions itself, and rather swiftly runs up against certain aspects of the universe which would seem to contradict the idea of a divine creator – or at least one which cares about our well-being. I also dislike the jump from ‘God is an explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life’ to ‘God is the explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life’; I’m certainly willing to grant that God is a possible explanation, and perhaps even a fairly decent one, but that’s not enough for me to make the jump to theism. (In case that doesn’t make it obvious enough, I see the issue of theism as probabilistic rather than going for all-or-nothing certainty, which I don’t believe anyone can honestly lay claim to when it comes to the question of God’s existence.)

In case you’re wondering, I don’t think most of the anti-theistic arguments are particularly strong either. Some formulations of the evidential problem of evil seem to be lacking strong theistic responses, and one of them in particular is, I feel, a very strong argument for atheism, but they mostly seem to make the same mistakes as their theistic counterparts.

Ted Haggard

Ted Haggard has become something of a joke in the debate over homosexuality, for obvious reasons – a former anti-homosexual preacher, outed in spectacular fashion? Oh, the irony. Before today, I usually just thought of Haggard as an example of poetic justice, but a recent article on Religion Dispatches made me rethink that position. Here’s a quote:

Now Haggard, scorned by his former friends, humiliated and apparently broke, is using Pelosi’s film to reintroduce himself to America, and to seek some measure of understanding. He’s been on a publicity junket, appearing on Oprah on Wednesday with his wife, Gayle, and on Larry King Live tonight. Haggard is desperate for redemption, but he can’t do the one thing that might make it possible—admit and accept that he’s gay, and work to create a more inclusive faith that won’t force other gay Christians into shameful, soul-destroying secrecy. (Source)

Before I say anything else, I will point out that it’s difficult to have too much sympathy for Haggard. He’s undoubtedly facing a problem that he helped create, and his ‘fall from grace’ involved a rather horrible crime that often gets overlooked.

Having said that, Haggard is the victim of a culture that refuses to let him be who he is. I know all about the various Biblical condemnations against homosexuality, and I’m not going to argue with those apart from saying, yet again, that I don’t believe any single book has all the answers on any issue, but did Haggard’s coworkers and supposed friends really have to ostracise him so completely? He lied, took drugs, paid a prostitute for sex, cheated on his wife and demonstrayed blatant hypocrisy – all of which can be forgiven. What apparently amounts to an unforgivable sin, however, is having sex with another man.

Would Haggard be happier and better adjusted now if he had never had to hide his desires? Almost certainly – his actions do not paint the picture of someone who’s at peace with themselves, nor is further religious ‘counselling’ likely to remove that part of himself which he finds so repulsive. Ted Haggard is an ideal example of what happens when a person is forced to choose between their deeply cherished beliefs and a fundamental part of their personality.

Few Evangelical Christians seem to look at the issue in this light. Rather than asking themselves whether there might not be a better way of handling homosexuality than treating it as a disease, the majority of them seem content to hold up Haggard as ‘one of them’, turning him into a boogeyman to frighten children with. They assume that it was his attraction to men that drove him to drug use and immorality, rather than stopping to think how they might react if forced by their community to live a lie.

Like I said, Haggard does not deserve unfettered sympathy, but nor does he deserve derision and ostracisation. I for one would be more than willing to ‘forgive’ his previous anti-homosexual campaigning, even though I know what kind of heartache and pain he’s likely caused a lot of people, but I fear that his fellow theists might be unwilling to do the same thing.

Theistic Stupidity

Generally speaking, I’d say I’m less critical of religion than a lot of atheists. I’ve written here about some of the philosophical arguments for God that I find at least partially compelling, and I’m generally of the opinion that well-known atheiats like Richard Dawkins go too far in attempting to create a culture which conemns anything even remotely connected to theism. There is, however, one particular theistic argument that I have absolutely no respect for, nor do I respect those who use it. If you’re an atheist, you probably know exactly which one I’m talking about:

“You actually do believe in God, you’re just denying it because you don’t want to answer to Him.”

If you’re not cringing right now, you’ve either never come across some variation of the above sentence (lucky you) or else you’re a very stupid theist. Yes, stupid; I’m not going to make any excuses for this kind of reasoning. If you buy into it, you are an idiot.

Like this guy:

So I’ll ask again: do honest atheists exist? You may think that to be a silly question given the notoriety of late among such prominent professing atheists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, just to name a few. But the operative word here is professing. Yes, many profess to be atheists and make a pretty good living writing books about it or appearing on talk shows or teaching in our universities and colleges. But my question is again whether or not these people, in the depth and quiet of their own hearts, honestly believe there is no God.

I contend they do not. I contend that they are living and speaking in denial of what they know to be true. I contend that they are laboring to persuade themselves of what is indelibly and inescapably inscribed on their hearts: that there is a God and that they are morally accountable to him. (Source)

Does this kind of argument deserve any sort of attention beyond ridicule? I ‘contend’ that it does not, although I’m actually going to give some decent reasons for why I think that way. There are certain ways a person can ‘cheat’ in any debate or disagreement, and all of them are intellectually dishonest. Possibly the worst of these is to assert that the person you disagree with doesn’t really believe or think what they claim to believe – in other words, you know their mind better than they do.

This kind of bullshit really needs no refutation. It’s backed up solely by the Bible (and in the above case, by John Calvin) and represents the kind of underhanded, loathsomely dishonest tactic that intelligent theists shouldn’t associate themselves with.

And, just in case you’re wondering whether the fact that we atheists ‘really’ believe in God will get us a free ticket into heaven:

I can’t emphasize strongly enough that although such knowledge is inescapable, it is inadequate to impart eternal life or the forgiveness of sins. Although countless burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe, “although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no way lead us into the right path.” God’s existence and eternal power and divine nature are made “plain” to all men, rendering them “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). But we do not have “eyes” to behold his saving splendor “unless they be illumined by the inner revelation of God through faith.”

The fault is not with what God has revealed. There is no shortcoming or defect in his handiwork. The failure is in us. The dullness and stupidity and delusion are wholly ours. The problem isn’t that mankind lacks sufficient evidence for the existence of God. The problem isn’t that the evidence suffers from lack of clarity or beauty or falls short in its persuasive power.

Of course.

Anthropocentrism!

For some reason, monotheism seems to go hand-in-hand with the idea that all of Creation is here ‘for us’, including all of the stuff outside the observable universe that we’ll never, ever be able to interact with. (Alternatively, one can go with the idea that everything is in existence ‘for God’, but it very frequently amounts to the same thing.) This is, I’m convinced, why so many people have a problem with evolution – it’s just not dignified enough to think that we (wait for it) ‘came from monkeys’.

I wouldn’t have thought that this concept coult extend to something as trivial as the size of the human genome, but PZ Meyers reveals otherwise:

4) The Human Genome Project showed that only 1-2% of Human DNA codes for proteins, or about 25,000 genes. These are not enough to account for the complexity of the organism. What is the other 98% of the genome’s function? We don’t know.

This is fast becoming one of the most popular assertions by creationists. Exactly how many genes would be sufficient to account for the complexity of a human being? Show your work. How many genes do we need to have to make you happy, and why should your sense of self-worth be a reason for us to have more?

Less than 25,000 genes is simply the number. It’s what has been counted in analyzing the genome. I don’t quite get the point of complaining that it’s not enough, becaust obviously, it is enough, or we wouldn’t be here.

They always seem so dismayed that humans have that number — it’s never shock that mice or birds have that many, or that flies have about half as many. It’s apparently a very personal issue to them, sort of like how many millimeters long their penis is. Come on, creationists! Be proud of your 25,000 micrometers! (Source)

The article he’s quoting can be found here, and seems to be part of the Creationist ‘find a PhD’ game. I was under the impression that doctors actually have to know something about science, but Jeffrey Dach appears to have slept through the important lectures on that one.

The true horror only comes in his ‘references’ section, though: he links to the Discovery Institute and Conservapaedia, twin intellectual cess pits of the internet. Ouch. If I was running the Salon.com servers, I’d be looking into industrial strength hard drive bleach right about now.

Uh…Wow

So, I recently came across this website thanks to a commentor on Pharyngula. ‘Christian Science?’ I thought, naievely expecting more Creatonist drivel. ‘Hey, it can’t be that bad…”

Their FAQ section quickly set me straight:

Why is it called Christian Science?

It’s Science because it’s based upon a set of spiritual principles—laws relating to the nature of God and His creation—that can be applied with expected, consistent results.

Uh…huh. I think most scientists would bring in the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘psuedoscience’ here, and this reeks of the latter. Unfortunately, these people aren’t just harmless quacks. It took me a little while to realize that the website is run by the ‘Christian Science’ group who believe that illness and injury can be treated by prayer alone. Again, from the FAQ:

Why do you lobby for exemptions to health laws that allow you to keep your children from going to doctors?

Christian Scientists aren’t seeking exemptions from the law, but accommodations within it. Meaning, they’re trying to ensure that laws provide every citizen a choice of healthcare, including the system of spiritual prayer that Christian Scientists have found to be effective.

Have you ever visited a website that made you feel vaguely unclean, as if just viewing certain arrangements of text on a screen could be morally wrong? Obvious jokes aside, the Christian Science website makes me feel like that.

The AFA On Facebook

Just a quick update today, to report that the American Family Association has stepped boldly into the Web 2.0 era by creating a Facebook account.

AFA is for people who are tired of cursing the darkness and who are ready to light a bonfire. We are a non-profit (501(c)(3)) organization founded in 1977 by Don Wildmon. The American Family Association represents and stands for traditional family values, focusing primarily on the influence of television and other media – including pornography – on our society.
Well, thank God for that.
I don’t use Facebook or Myspace or any of those other compulsion-generating time wasters, but I have noticed a lot more ‘serious’ activity being reported on social networking sites. On one hand it’s undoubtedly a good thing, since it should get young people in particular more interested in important societal issues. On the other hand, ‘I’d sure like it if the AFA got more members’ isn’t a thought that’s ever gone through my mind…

Hands Tied By The Bible

Domestic abuse is obviously an issue in any community, but one would hope that a church would take steps to protect or at least support any of its members who are going through such an ordeal. And indeed, that does seem to be the case – it’s not uncommon to see posters or leaflets for domestic abuse helplines or support groups that are backed by a local church, at least where I live. But things get a bit more complicated if that church supports the idea tha women should be subservient to men, or at least see their husband as the ‘head of the household’.

The Saddleback church, home of the ever-controversial Rick Warren, recently drew attention to itself when one of its pastors argued that domestic abuse is grounds for separation and counseling, but not for divorce. Unsusprisingly, this rather dubious advice comes from the Bible, which apparently does not give permission to end a marriage because one partner has grown violent towards the other. One would think that even this rather weak condemnation of spoual abuse would include one-off incidents, but no – according to pastor Tom Holladay, it doesn’t really ‘count’ unless someone is being beaten regularly or semi-regularly.

Keep in mind that Holladay does not seem to be insane or misogynistic (although that might be debatable). He also doesn’t seem to be particularly happy with what the Bible has to say about domestic violence:

“I wish there were a third in Scripture, having been involved as a pastor with situations of abuse,” Warren said. “There is something in me that wishes there were a Bible verse that says, ‘If they abuse you in this-and-such kind of way, then you have a right to leave them.'”

Warren said his church’s counseling ministry advises separation and counseling instead of divorce in abusive marriages, because it’s the only path toward healing. “There’s an abusive cycle that’s been set up,” he said. “Separation combined with counseling has been proven to provide healing in people’s lives.” (Source)

(Note: I can’t seem to access the original article, and the version quoted here erroneously identifies the source as Rick Warren rather than Holladay.)

What’s striking about this is that Holladay is almost amitting that he sees a problem with how the Bible treats domestic violence – his reason, his compassion, something in him is saying that there’s a problem here. I’ve seen this before, when a depressingly small minority of Christians admit that they don’t see why homosexuality should be considered a sin, or when someone attempts to justify the Biblical idea of slavery. (And before I get a snide comment, I’m aware that the slavery described in the Bible isn’t like what most people think of as slavery.) But, almost without fail, Christians will supress or ignore the nagging voice at the back of their head and assume that the problem is with them rather than the Bible.

I shouldn’t have to point out how wrong-headed this seems to someone who isn’t religious. If the ‘word of God’ seems unfair or suspect, so much the worse for the word of God. Atheists are often accused of condemning theists for acting like sheep or for lacking the capacity to think critically, but those criticising this practice very often don’t realize where that opinion comes from. For many of us, it isn’t that believing in God is necessarily ‘stupid’ or something that only the ignorant do. We simply can’t stand to see people prostrating themselves in front of a book, particularly if doing so requires that they forfeit their intelligence.

The urge to just accept what the Bible says regardless of any problems with its message can be seen with particular prevalence in Creationists, who must literally delude themselves in order to continue believing that the Bible is the inerrant, literal word of God. Why is it such a taboo to suggest that this particular book might be mistaken on some subjects? Surely a person’s faith is not so weak that it will collapse if they admit that that the scientific evidence for evolution is strong, or that the Biblical prohibition against homosexuality could actually just be the product of an ignorant age?

Christians, don’t use the excuse that your hands are tied by the Bible. If you believe that God gave you your intelligence and ability to reason, then honour him by using it. Ask yourself seriously whether divorcing your spouse if he or she physically assaults you might not be justified, or whether homosexuality is actually something we need to be warning our children against. I’m not asking that you become atheists, but at least try really, truly looking at your religion in a critical way for a change.