Monday, December 31, 2012

Main tactics used by religion

Religions have formed (or evolved, if you pardon the pun) during the millenia. Some tactics used by religions have become very prevalent because they are so effective due to how human psychology works. Here are some of them.


Many people do not fully realize this, but from all the tactics used by religions, including the ones listed in this post, guilt is possibly the most fundamental and effective one. It's even more fundamental than fear or intimidation.

The basic tactic is to make the person feel wrong about themselves. Things that you normally do are  wrong, harmful, and shameful. You are guilty, you are a bad person at a fundamental level, you are worthless. Most importantly, you must immediately correct these problems if you want to make amends and be a slightly better person.

Usually it's important to emphasize that no matter what you do, you can never get completely rid of the shame and bad things, not in this life, but at least you can make amends to be slightly better and to earn your better standing in the afterlife. In other words, it's not like you can just make amends, do some magic rituals and poof, you are a good person again. No, you can become slightly better, but never completely perfect. The sense of guilt must always be maintained, even if you try to do something about it.

Of course the solution to this enormous problem is, what else, the religion that's being sold via this guilt trip. You must accept the religion and fully submit to it, and you must spread it further, teaching it to others.

This tactic abuses the fact that humans are naturally gullible. We have evolved that way because it has been a survival advantage during the history of humanity. (If someone tells you that there's something wrong with what you are doing, that it's dangerous, in average it's more beneficial for your survival to believe it than to ignore it. Thus instinctive gullibility has been naturally selected into the human psyche.)


Of course the other extremely common tactic is eliciting fear and intimidation. If you don't do what the religion mandates, you will experience great suffering, either in this life or in the afterlife (or, in the case of some religions, in your next life.)

Christianity has taken this to its logical extreme: Indescribable endless torture, the worst possible pain and suffering you could ever imagine, up to eleven, for all eternity. The greatest possible punishment that the human mind can come up with.

And why not. If you can scare people into accepting your religion, then why not go all the way to the absolute extreme with it? Especially since so many people are ready to believe it, completely disregarding the logic of it. (It really is quite amazing how the exact same person could claim that a perfectly good, all-loving god who is incapable of evil could punish people with the worst possible torture that can be imagined for all eternity. This is almost Orwellian double-think.)

Demonization of the opposition

Demonization of the "enemy" has been a common tactic for all kind of warfare during the entirety of human history, be it physical warfare or just "warfare" at the ideological level. It consists of making the opponents to be depicted as extremely unpleasant, horrible, wicked and dangerous.

This tactic actually serves two roles. Firstly, it gives confidence to your own followers that they are in the right path and that "fighting" the opponents is a good thing. Secondly, to instill fear into your followers (in other words, if you ever leave the religion, you will become such a wicked and horrible monster as those, and you wouldn't want that, would you?)

Sometimes the "opponents" to demonize are people, usually people who follow a different religion or don't follow any religion at all. Sometimes the "opponent" is at an ideological level.

Science is a perfect example of the latter category. Many believers demonize science, especially certain branches of it, and make all kind of outlandish claims about it, such as it being a demonic plot, a world-wide conspiracy to overthrow religion, the biggest lie ever told, and of course extremely dangerous (for example that the theory of evolution causes this and that negative thing, such as racism or the holocaust.)

The difference between psychics and magicians

With the title of this post I don't mean to say that the first are scammers and the second are just entertainers. What I mean to say is what's the difference between psychics (or, for that matter, anybody who claims supernatural powers) and stage magicians from the perspective of people who want to believe in the supernatural powers of the human mind?

The only difference between them is that the former claim that their tricks are not tricks at all, but completely genuine, while stage magicians make no such claims (at least not seriously; sometimes they may allude at mystical powers, but it's just for the entertainment, and they are fully ready to say that it's just an act for the purposes of entertainment if asked about it.)

The strange thing about this is that this difference is really effective. The mere claim that the fraudsters present is enough to convince the believers. Nothing else is needed. The believers are completely ready to accept said claim, and will defend the claim to death if challenged.

What makes this really schizophrenic is that these exact same people who defend alleged psychics do not have any problem whatsoever in accepting and acknowledging that the exact same tricks performed by stage magicians are just that, ie. tricks with no supernatural origin of any kind. Just sleight of hand, misdirection, doing things behind the scenes hidden from the viewers...

And the thing is, the stage magicians do the exact same things as the psychics, such as "mind reading", "predicting the future", spoon bending and all other kinds of seemingly impossible feats. Yet, somehow, the believers still have this weird attitude where they fully accept these things as just physical tricks, while still defending the exact same stunts as genuine and supernatural when performed by psychics.

It seems that if someone claims that the trick is not a trick, that it's a genuine supernatural event, that's enough. It doesn't matter if it can be demonstrated that the exact same stunt can be performed via entirely natural means; that makes absolutely no difference. It's still genuine and supernatural when made by a psychic.

When challenged, the believer will inevitably resort to an argument from ignorance. "Yeah? If it's a trick, then how does he do it? Can you explain that to me?" Any counter-argument along the lines of "well, can you explain to me how a stage magicians does the same thing?" will be ignored. If you can't explain how the psychic does it, that's proof enough that it's genuine and supernatural. Never mind the stage magicians.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Biblical literalism is actually quite rare

Quite many secular people, and even many Christians, have the misconception that the vast majority of Christians are fundamentalist biblical literalists. In other words, that they hold the position that every single story of the Bible is literally true as described, and should be interpreted as such, rather than being eg. an allegory or parable.

This notion isn't actually true. In fact, the fundamentalist literalists form a minority among all of the world's Christians (even if we count only those who consider themselves believers and who actively practice Christianity, rather than being "Christian" in name only but are in practice as secular as any atheist.)

For example, the biggest denomination of Christianity, Catholicism, is not a young-earth creationist denomination, accepts that the universe and the Earth are billions of years old, and considers the events depicted in the book of Genesis to be more or less allegorical and figurative. While individual catholics might themselves be biblical literalists and young-earth creationists, the vast majority accept the official position of the Catholic church.

Many, if not most, of the protestant denominations also have no problem in accepting the old age of the universe and consider the first chapters of the Bible more or less allegorical.

So why does one easily get the notion that the vast majority of Christians are fundamentalist literalist young-earth creationists? This is most probably because this minority of Christians tends to be the most vocal as well, and the subgroup of Christianity that gets into the biggest and most visible fights with secular people and the ones who most vocally demand special privileges at a governmental level. All the non-literalist non-fundamentalists are much more "moderate" and do not tend to be so vocal, start fights and demand special privileges and changes to law.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

An alternative hypothesis for the origin of the universe

Many apologists and creationists have this strange notion that if nobody can present an alternative explanation for the origin of the universe, then their God hypothesis should therefore be accepted by default, until something better is presented. In fact, many apologists actually present this very argument in all seriousness.

It shouldn't be necessary to emphasize the fallacy in this kind of thinking. Even if there were no alternative explanations whatsoever, no alternative hypotheses to rule out, that doesn't make such a made-up explanation as "God did it" any more plausible. Having only one hypothesis for something quite obviously doesn't make it somehow automatically true or even more believable. It's not like it gets an exemption for being the only one.

But if we wanted to present an alternative hypothesis, just as a thought experiment, and just to show that it's not outright impossible to come up with such an alternative, consider this one:

Our universe resides in a kind of "meta-universe" (or "metaverse" for short) whose properties might be completely different from the ones inside this universe of ours, and nigh impossible for us to fully comprehend. (Think of quantum mechanics, up to eleven.) Our universe is a kind of "bubble" inside this metaverse.

Concepts such as space, time and causality might be completely nonsensical in this metaverse. They just don't work in the same way as inside our universe. If you want, you could hypothesize that the metaverse might be "spaceless" and "timeless", and that things like causality are really fuzzy things (a bit like in quantum mechanics, but at an even more incomprehensible level.)

There could be a physical mechanism, like a law of nature, in this metaverse that constantly pops up randomized universes into existence, like bubbles appearing in boiling water. This mechanism is just a simple physical mechanism, just like gravity or entropy in our universe. It doesn't have any kind of mind or goal, it just is. It's simply an intrinsic property of the metaverse, just like eg. gravity is an intrinsic property of our universe. (We could further hypothesize that it always creates universes in pairs that cancel each other, one universe always being the exact negative of the other. Balance seems to be an intrinsic property of everything, so it would make sense that entire universes are also always balanced in this manner.)

These universes might or might not have a limited existence.

Each universe has a random set of energy and physical properties. In the vast majority of these universes the amount of energy and the particular physical properties are such that they never develop any kind of life (if they develop anything at all; they might just remain devoid of any structure for their entire existence.)

In the case of our particular universe, it just happened, by chance, to have the exact amount of energy and physical properties for our kind of life to form. There was no higher purpose or goal for this universe to be like this, it just happened to be like this from among innumerable random universes.

Now, the point of this hypothesis is not for it to be a correct explanation, especially since there's zero evidence for it. Its point is to show that the God hypothesis is most certainly not the only possibility. It's easy to come up with other explanations.

Of course if you present this hypothesis to an apologist, he or she will most probably, and quite ironically, immediately object with the same objections that are presented against God: Where did the metaverse come from? Where did this universe-popping mechanism come from? Why would you believe in this hypothesis given that there's zero evidence of it? And so on.

The irony here is, of course, that apologists want to exempt God from being subjected to all these questions, while not having any problem presenting them about other hypotheses such as this one. Anyway, as said, that's not really the point. The point is that there are other possible hypotheses. The God hypothesis is not the only one and does not have any special status.

The God hypothesis is quite useless

Theists offer the God hypothesis as an explanation for the most fundamental questions about this universe. They consider it a beautiful, complete explanation for everything. The major problem with it is that it doesn't actually explain anything at all. It simply shifts the exact same questions one step further, with the drawback that one additional mystery is added in between.

Theists also want God to be exempt from the very problems that it's trying to solve.

Why does the universe exist? They say that it's because of God. Well, why does God exist? There is no answer to this. He just does, period. God's existence is exempt from being explained.

How did the universe come into existence? They say that God created it. How did God create it? Again, no answer. It's just "somehow." No further explanations are needed. Thus this "explanation" doesn't actually explain anything.

What is the cause for the existence of the universe? They say that the cause is God. Well, then what is the cause for God's existence? But no, God is exempt and doesn't need a cause. Again, a mystery is simply replaced with another mystery.

They say that the universe cannot be infinite because it's "logically" impossible (as if logic had anything to do with that.) Yet they claim that God is infinite and has always existed. Again, God is exempt from these rules, with no justification of any kind. He just is, period, no justification or demonstration needed.

The fact is, the "God hypothesis" is completely useless. It actually doesn't explain anything. Moreover, it's worse than no hypothesis at all because it only adds more questions than it answers.

Friday, December 28, 2012

William Lane Craig is a deceitful liar

When an apologist is presented with a counterargument that he or she cannot refute, there are a few tactics that are usually used (instead of, you know, just outright admitting that yes, that's a good and valid counterargument.) Some start outright avoiding the counterargument, others move the goalposts. Others start playing dumb. A fourth tactic is to distort what the other person said or clearly meant, and attack that.

A perfect example of this fourth tactic is William Lane Craig's response to one of Richard Dawkins' counterarguments to the so-called cosmological argument. Dawkins writes:

Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts.
How does Craig respond to this objection? He says:
Dawkins doesn't deny that the argument successfully demonstrates the existence of an uncaused, beginless, changeless, immaterial, spaceless, timeless and unimaginably powerful personal creator of the Universe.
No, that's not at all what Dawkins is saying. "Even if we allow..." and so on does not mean "I accept the proof as valid." It means "even if we assumed it to be valid" which is a completely different thing. What Dawkins is doing here is pointing out the huge and completely unjustified leap in logic that happens at the end of the argument (which even itself is very much questionable.)

What Craig is doing here is blatantly distorting what Dawkins is saying, in order to try to win. Why does he do that instead of actually addressing the objection? The only possible conclusion is that Craig does not have an actual response to the objection and therefore must resort to distortion.

And this is coming from someone who loves to emphasize the correct use of rigorous logic and philosophy, and who belittles anyone who he sees as not being in par with his own knowledge and education on these subjects.

Transcendental argument

One of the most typical and popular forms of the so-called "transcendental argument for the existence of God" is that the laws of logic exist, are immaterial and must have been created by something.

This argument makes no sense. The laws of logic are simply concepts that describe something (eg. existence.) Claiming that the laws of logic must have been "created" makes as much sense as saying that, for example, the concept of "roundness" must have been created.

We describe a ball as "round." Roundness is a concept that we use to describe a geometric property of certain things. Nothing needed to first "invent" this concept for round things to be possible, or for us to be able to describe them with such a concept.

The geometric property which we describe with the concept "round" is not something that "exists" on its own, independently of anything. If absolutely nothing existed, then there would be no concept of "round" either. The concept is completely tied to what it describes. It's simply a notion we use to describe a property that we can find in existence.

Moreover, the concept of "round" does need to be "created" or "invented" or anything before it becomes possible (as a description of something.)

The people who use the TAG argument seem to have this weird notion that the laws of logic are somehow "existent" on their own right, independent of anything, rather than simply being notions we use to describe something in the same way as we use "round" or "square" or "twice as large", etc.

(And of course, like every single other such argument, this one also falls into the same fallacy of jumping from "an unknown caused X to exist" to "God" with no justification whatsoever. This is not only a completely fallacious jump in logic, it's also completely useless because it tells us absolutely nothing. It just puts a label on an unknown, which is completely useless.)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Another approach at the source of morality

As I have commented in previous blog posts, I find the argument from morality (in other words, the typical "where do you get your morals from?") really strange. I find it really strange because the answer is so clear and simple, and there's nothing to it. We are a social, intelligent species that can deduce what's good and bad for the society as a whole and its individuals, and it's beneficial for everybody if they follow these principles. I really can't understand what's so difficult about this.

So I thought of a different approach at trying to explain to someone why there's no need for a "god" to explain morality.

Would you like it if a stranger came to you and punched you in the face and kicked your ribs, sending you to a hospital? No? Why not? Because it really hurts, it's dangerous and damaging (both physically and mentally), and there's no reason to do that.

Would you like it if someone robbed your home, leaving you with nothing? Of course not. It would damage your livelihood, cause lots of problems and stress, and affect you in many negative ways. It may even cause permanent damage to your wellbeing if you lose something important or valuable.

Likewise you wouldn't want for someone to deliberately burn your house down. You would lose your place to live and it would be a huge monetary loss, besides being very mentally damaging and stressful.

Would you like it if you were raped? Of course not. It's one of the worst possible ways to mentally damage someone, and physical damage is also possible. There's also the risk of an unwanted pregnancy from a stranger, which is not something to be taken lightly in the least.

Would you like it if someone murdered you? No. You want to live, like everyone else, and you should have the right to live, as everyone else.

And so on, and so forth.

Note that in none of these cases the answer was "because God forbids it." There's always a rational and justified reason why those things are considered bad and punishable. These are all practical moral values that benefit everybody. Where exactly does God enter in the picture? What exactly makes this alleged "god" the source of all this?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Making people believe your argument is sound

While this is most certainly not exclusive to religious people, it's nevertheless extremely common among them, probably way more common than among atheists. And that's a really heavy bias towards accepting and supporting arguments that they don't really understand and which don't actually make any sense.

For example, the so-called ontological argument for the existence of a god is one of the most insane arguments that have ever been seriously presented by Christian apologists. And I mean really insane. It makes absolutely no sense, it has so many logical fallacies and is logically twisted beyond all belief. No sane person could ever take this argument seriously or believe that it's actually a good and sound argument.

Yet when a charismatic speaker such as William Lane Craig presents it to a religious audience, the vast majority of them accept it and think that it's a good argument. The majority of them do not actually understand what the argument is saying, yet they still accept it as a good, strong argument, just because the speaker is so eloquent and charismatic, and sounds so educated and formal.

They are extremely biased and want to believe it's a good argument. Even if the most attentive of them have a nagging thought in their heads that says something like "hmmm... I don't really understand this, does it actually make any sense?" they quickly shut that nagging voice up and accept the argument without thinking about it, simply because they want to believe it. Then they can feel so good about themselves, how there are such good arguments against skeptics and atheists.

I believe that this is a kind of religious mentality seeping into a meta-level. The same kind of mentality that outright fears having doubts about the very existence of God also affects their mental attitude towards arguments that (seemingly) prove the existence of God: If they doubt the argument, it's like doubting the very existence of God himself, therefore it's scary to have such doubts, and such nagging voices must be immediately shut off.

(Of course there are exceptions to this, and some religious people do fully accept that an argument like the ontological one does not make any sense and is completely invalid. However, these people are a very, very small minority.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The argument from population growth rate

Many young earth creationists argue that the world's population today can only be explained if there were 6 people about 4400 years ago (as per the flood story of the Bible.) To prove this they assume that the world population doubles each 150 years, and count backwards using that number.

This, of course, makes two major mistakes. Firstly, the number 150 is completely spurious and based on absolutely nothing. It's pulled from one's behind. It has been carefully chosen to give the right answer when you plug it into the equation. So rather than taking a known fact (in this case the alleged doubling of population each 150 years) what they have done is to take the equation and ask "which growth rate would give me 6 people 4400 years ago?" and come up with the answer "population doubles each 150 years."

Secondly, it just assumes that population growth has been the same for the entire history of humanity. That's of course, completely unjustified and can be easily demonstrated as false.

However, the most ironic thing with this is that they do not realize what their growth rate assumptions imply. Just ask them to calculate, using that exact formula of theirs, how many people there were during important events described in the Old Testament, such as Israel's escape from Egypt.

(The story talks about hundreds of thousands of Israelites alone, yet the formula that these creationists use would give just a few hundreds as the entire population of Earth.)

Noah's flood makes no sense

There are many creationists who believe that the story of Noah's flood in the Bible is literally true and accurate, and happened exactly as described, and have gone to great lengths to try to "prove" it (and try to show how geology and all other branches of science that can actually study these things are completely wrong and biased.)

Here are some of the objections that can be presented about the literal interpretation of that story.

Richard Dawkins presents in his book The Greatest Show On Earth one of the most compelling objections. There are many, many species of animals that appear only in relatively small and isolated parts of the world, and do not appear in the wild anywhere else, not even in fossil form. For example, there are tens of species of marsupials in Australia that do not appear anywhere else in the world. How exactly did they get there from the landing site of the ark, and why did they not leave any ancestors behind during the trip there? There are species of animals that only appear in the island of Madagascar and nowhere else. Worse still, there are species that appear only in the Galapagos islands, in the middle of a vast ocean, and nowhere else. And those are just a few examples. How did they all get to those places (after all, they would have had to cross mountain ranges, deserts and oceans, most of which are way too harsh for them to survive), why did they move all in group to those precise locations, and why did they not leave any ancestors behind?

(Incidentally, the fact that isolated places tend to have animal species that appear only there and nowhere else is completely in concordance with regular evolution. It's precisely what the theory of evolution predicts should have happened during vast amounts of time and speciation of isolated animal groups.)

There are, of course, a multitude of other objections that can be presented.

For instance, was the flood water salty or fresh? If it was salty, how did all the thousands and thousands of fresh water fish species survive for 40 days in such waters? If it was fresh, how did all the salt water fish species survive? And fish are but just one paraphyletic group of animals and plants that only survive in one type of water.

How did all the plants survive 40 days and 40 nights under innumerable tons of water? More importantly, what did the animals eat after the flood was over? (Even if all animals were magically herbivorous at that time, as some creationists suggest, there weren't many plants around for them to eat after the flood had destroyed all land plants.)

If there was a global flood, then everywhere in the world there should be a geological layer that shows this. It should be a layer clearly distinguishable from other layers because of it being full of organic material and fossils, in much more abundance than any other layer. There's no such world-wide layer.

The wackiest creationist theories claim that the geologic column was formed by the flood, and go so far as to claim that more "advanced" animals were able to flee the flood to higher ground than the more "primitive" ones (completely ignoring the fact that both fast and agile, as well as very slow animals, have been in abundance during the vast majority of the history of Earth.) This theory makes no sense because if it were so, the fossils should be found lined up at the edges of old, buried mountains, rather than being evenly distributed. Unless all these animals waited for a certain amount of sedimentary layers to form, then swam miles and miles into the expanding ocean, and then dived to the bottom to get buried at that precise layer.

Speaking of which, what exactly killed the trilobites? They were marine animals, after all. If all the other arthropods and fish survived the flood, why not trilobites?

There are many communicable diseases that can survive only in a specific species. This includes human-only diseases (examples include measles, leprosy, smallpox and typhus.) Most of these diseases are either removed sooner or later by the host's immune system, or the host dies from it. The disease can only survive if the host infects another individual before curing itself or dying.

This is a really big problem for the Arc story because it says that only two animals of most kinds were saved. All the others died in the flood. For those diseases to survive to this day, those two animals would have had to contract every single one of them and keep them alive (ie. not immunize themselves) for the entirety of the flood plus whatever time it took for them to procreate afterward. Then their offspring would have to procreate further in order to keep disseminating said diseases.

We are talking about these diseases surviving for years in one host before they can successfully spread. With the vast majority of communicable diseases this is a physical impossibility (because, as said, either the host's immune system kills the disease, or the host dies.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Natural selection is a good thing?

Many creationists have the misconception that skeptics and atheists who accept the theory of evolution have the notion that evolution and natural selection are good things, and something to embrace and to root for. This is very often related to the concept that evolution is "natural" and the way that "nature" works (and therefore a good and desirable thing.) Therefore if something is (seemingly) against evolution and natural selection, it's therefore "unnatural" and undesirable.

Some creationists use this notion to attack atheism and "evolutionism" (as they call it.) Others use it to argue against some other things they oppose, such as homosexuality (they argue that homosexuality is "unnatural" and against the concept of evolution and natural selection.)

Unfortunately, even some atheists have this misconception. (There are even a few atheists who argue against homosexuality using this very argument.)

This is all wrong, and a huge misunderstanding of what evolution and natural selection are. They are not "good" or "bad", they just happen. They do not have a mind or a goal, they do not aim for anything, nor are they inherently desirable and good. As said, they just are, period. It's a completely mindless, aimless natural phenomenon that just happens, period. They don't care if something they affect is for "good" or "bad" (because "they" are nothing more than simple blind natural laws in action.)

Natural selection is not automatically "good" or desirable. Sometimes it might be, sometimes it's not. Much of human history has actually been a fight to surpass and overthrow natural selection, and that has been for the better. Most prominently, natural selection would mean that many diseases would have killed a good majority of people, but human medicine has overcome that problem.

(Although, one could argue that even our progress in medicine has been a kind of "natural selection" because it has succeeded in helping our species survive, which is the essence of evolution. But as said, there's no "right" or "wrong" natural selection. The most one could say is that natural selection has "failed" in a sense when a species goes extinct.)

Even if something that the human species does to better the lives of its individuals (eg. through advances in medicine) were to be considered "against natural selection" and "unnatural" (which is just a silly idea, but let's play with that thought for a moment for the sake of argument) then so what? Who exactly cares? As said, evolution and natural selection are mindless physical processes, and there's nothing in them that ought to be respected or followed. If something about evolution and natural selection is bad for us, then there's absolutely no reason to just submit to it. There's nothing wrong in "fighting back" (so to speak.)

(Of course the whole concept of something being "unnatural" is completely nonsensical. "Nature" has no goals or rules that should be followed. Nature just is, nothing more. We can't be "unnatural" even if we wanted to because we are part of this physical universe. We are bound to the properties and laws of the universe, so the whole concept of something being "unnatural" is just silly and makes no sense.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The most blatant argument from ignorance

Argument from ignorance is an extraordinarily common argument for believing in a god. One of the most common ways to invoke it is to try to make the skeptic admit that they don't know something, and from there to jump to god, and to declare victory. In some cases the argument from ignorance is masqueraded as something else by using complex philosophical terminology and phrasings.

However, there's a popular form of this argument that's unusually blatant. Rather than trying to masquerade or hide the actual argument from ignorance, it's actually fully embraced and stated openly.

It goes something like: "If this (often a large circle, or alluding to everything that's possible to know) is everything that can be known, and this (a very small portion, eg. a small dot or percentage) is what we currently know, isn't it possible that God exists in the rest that we do not know?"

That is, rather than trying to hide, masquerade or obfuscate the argument from ignorance, just blast it fully open and outright state it. The big irony is that many people who present this argument seem to think that it's such a clever and outstanding argument, that no skeptic or atheist can respond to it.

For example, in this video a preacher lays out this very argument. He takes a long time to get to it, but the actual argument starts at about 4:30. (After he states the argument the audience laughs. I would like to think that they were laughing at the ridiculousness of the argument. Sadly, that was most likely not the case.)

(Quite ironically he says a bit before that: "and the Lord gave me an answer that I had never thought about until that moment." If such a blatant argument from ignorance is the best that the "Lord" can come up with, he isn't very smart, I would say.)

Of course the major problem with this argument is that it can be used to argue for the existence of anything you want. Dragons, unicorns, fairies, multiple gods, evil gods, the god of any religion, gods of no existing religion... whatever you want. (Ironically, the exact same argument could be used to argue for the non-existence of any god. You could just say "wouldn't it be possible that in that 95% that we don't know there is no god, and instead there is the explanation for everything without any god?")

But why would anyone believe in their existence without any actual evidence? You don't believe in everything just because there might be a remote possibility that it exists in that gap of knowledge. Rational people require actual evidence before believing in such extraordinary things. Believing in things without any evidence, just to fill out gaps in knowledge with hypotheticals, is most certainly not the smart thing to do.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Christian vs. secular morality

Many Christians claim time and again that God is the source of all morality, and that without God there can't be moral values. Moreover, God's morals (more specifically, the Christian God's morals) are perfect and absolutely good.

So let's compare the morality as taught by Christianity to secular moral values.

(Note that because there are over 30 thousand denominations of Christianity, each one with different interpretations of the Bible, there are about as many interpretations of "Christian morality" as well. However, here I'm going to take the most commonly accepted ones.)

Christian morality teaches that all crimes are equally punishable in the eyes of God. Even the smallest of infractions is deserving of the same punishment as the largest ones. Secular morality posits that punishment should be proportional to the severity of the crime.

In Christian morality there is only one single punishment for all crimes, no matter what their severity might be, and this punishment is eternal. (It varies by denomination whether this is eternal torture, or simply oblivion; the most popular interpretation is the former.) In secular morality the punishment should be fair and proportional to the severity of the crime (from warnings to fines of varying amounts to prison sentences of varying lengths, according to severity.)

In Christian morality everybody is guilty by default, and deserving of eternal punishment, unless they redeem themselves. In secular morality everybody is innocent by default until they actually commit a crime. Only after they commit an actual crime are they deserving of a punishment.

In Christian morality there is a loophole to erase your crimes without having to suffer the punishment that you deserve. There is no such loophole in secular morality.

And related to that, Christian morality has the concept of punishing innocent people on behalf of the guilty. This thought is completely abhorrent in secular morality.

Christian morality has the concept of thought crimes and victimless crimes, crimes that are "against God" (rather than against anybody else.) Conveniently, many of these crimes are things that are completely natural behavior for humans, so it's guaranteed that the vast majority of people will commit them. In secular morality crimes are those that harm others, and the whole concept of a thought crime or a victimless crime, a crime that doesn't actually do any harm to anybody, is ridiculous.

When we get down to it, secular morality is based on what's best for the society, while Christian morality is all about guilt and fear, about victimizing people for natural behavior that doesn't harm anybody, and scaring them into embracing the religion. The goal of Christian morality is not to make people behave better, but to draw them into the religion.

And then Christians claim that Christianity is the source of all morality, even the secular one...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The two basic "proofs of God"

As I have commented in a previous blog post, trying to prove the existence of a god using logic is a futile endeavor for the simple reason that logic always start with assumptions, and the "proofs of God" always start with unjustified assumptions. Using logic to "prove" the existence of a god is, basically, defining God into existence.

Anyway, the vast majority of these "proofs" have one of these two basic forms:

  1. Something unknown caused X. That something was God.
  2. X is immaterial/transcendental/supernatural. God is immaterial/transcendental/supernatural. Therefore God exists.
When you get down to it, when you strip the "logical proof of God" into its most basic form, it usually is one of the two fallacies above.

The first is, of course, an argument from ignorance. Since something has no (apparent) explanation, that something is then attributed to "God." No further justification needed. Furthermore, in many cases even the premise (ie. "something caused X") is an unjustified assumption. However, even if it were true, the jump in logic is still astounding.

The second form has a multitude of fallacies packed into one. So many, in fact, that listing them all is quite lengthy.

Its basic form is, of course, the so-called fallacy of the undistributed middle ("X has some property, Y has the same property, therefore X is Y; or they share other properties beside that one.") In some cases it could also be considered a post hoc fallacy ("X and Y share some property, therefore X caused Y.")

Moreover, it usually outright starts with a blatant, unjustified assumption, which makes a claim about something without even considering the alternatives. This is often a so-called category error, in other words, categorizing something as something else (one example being, categorizing "sentience" as an entity that exists all by itself independent of a brain, rather than it being a function, something that describes the physical properties and external behavior of a brain.)

The second premise (ie. "God has property X") is, of course, completely fallacious. It's a begging the question fallacy: It already assumes what the whole argument is trying to prove (ie. that God exists and has certain properties.) This also makes it circular logic.

This last thing is, in fact, what makes this type of logic so amusing. It kind of tries to "sneak in" the whole existence of a god without having to justify it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The origin of religions

Religions are ubiquitous to humanity, and have probably existed for as long as humans have had any kind of rational higher-level thoughts. It's often hypothesized, from a purely secular point of view, why did religions form in the first place, and why they are so ubiquitous. Some hypothesize that, from an evolutionary perspective, religions offer a survival advantage to the species, which is why they are so prevalent. Others hypothesize that religion is simply a side-effect, a by-product of something else that was evolutionarily advantageous. (Such side-effects are extremely common in evolution, after all.)

Personally I find the latter idea more plausible. I'm not an evolutionary biologist nor an anthropologist, but I can perfectly well imagine that the origin of religions is something like this:

Humans are a social species, and have been so for a really long time, even from before our ancestors could even be classified as humans (ie. homo sapiens.) In our case being highly social was a survival advantage because we weren't so fit for survival as individuals. Strength in numbers, and so on.

For a society to work, some ground rules must be agreed upon, and all the members of that society have to agree to follow those rules, for the benefit of everybody. This is, in fact, where "morals" come from (especially the instinctive ones.) Those individuals who obeyed the norms of society had a bigger survival advantage than those who didn't, and therefore an instinct to follow societal rules was naturally selected.

Societies themselves evolved into being quite authoritarian. After all, what good are societal rules if the members of the society don't follow them? If there's someone who breaks the rules and harms others by doing so, the others are prompted to do something about it. To enforce the rules. The law breaker is punished or cast out of the society. This further strengthens the natural selection happening that prefers individuals who obey the rules of the society.

It was thus only natural for an instinctive "respect the authority, the authority knows what's good for me and everybody around me, abhor people who don't respect the authority" mentality to form. The stronger that this instinct was, the higher the survival advantage.

While "authority" in this case could well be a concrete person or persons, more generally it was much more abstract. Originally, "authority" was in fact the society itself. The instinct was to follow the society, regardless of who was concretely in charge. And this society, the "authority", was conceptually larger and more powerful than any single individual.

Is it any wonder that at some point this went a bit overboard? People started instinctively respecting a "higher authority" that was much larger and more powerful than themselves, and from which everything that's good and beneficial came from. The source of all morality and rules. As the mental capacity of humans increased over time, it was only natural for these people to come up with all kinds of invented descriptions and claims about this "higher authority."

The abstract concept of "the higher authority" (which was originally just the society as a whole) became more and more concrete, albeit fictional, as the stories developed and were repeated. Every storyteller would add their own flavor, their own details. Their listeners would repeat these stories to their children and other family, and so on.

In other words, religions are simply a by-product of humans being a highly social species (which has a survival advantage of obeying the rules of the society.)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Using your opponents' arguments against themselves

When little children are arguing and calling each other names, one of the most common and stereotypical answers is the classical "no, you are!"

From an adult perspective this is, of course, pretty childish, although understandable. A small child can't be expected to be able to invent witty comebacks or actual refutations, so throwing back the exactly same insult or claim is often the only thing that a child can think of.

One would think that as a person grows older and gets more experienced and knowledgeable, such a childish response of using your opponents' arguments against themselves, with little to no modification, would become as ridiculous as it really is. One would think wrong.

It's a surprisingly common occurrence for an apologist or a creationist to use the exact same arguments as skeptics use, right back at the skeptics, just with reversed terminology, even when it makes absolutely no sense. The wording may be fancier, but in its core it's a simple and straightforward "no, you are!"

In some cases it can get astonishingly blatant. For example, this is a direct quote from a creationist video:

"And to explain all this they pile up just-so-story on top of just-so-story. And if you try to ignore the problems with evolution, your world view becomes just crazy, just untenable, inconsistent. If you want to believe in evolution and live in your world view that's completely inconsistent with everything that we observe in the universe, that's just fine. But don't make it your mission to brainwash our kids; you can't even teach them to read properly, and that's the first step. We need engineers that can build stuff and solve problems by examining both sides of an issue rather than attempting to suppress or censor all the evidence for a world view that they are uncomfortable with. [...] What you believe happened millions of years ago isn't science. It's just just a belief, it's faith. It's faith in a particular version of history that's part of your world view. You can't prove it to be true."
This text is just astonishing. It's like they took a typical skeptical text and just changed a few words here and there to reverse the direction of the criticism.

In fact, try to count how many words you need to change in the quote above in order to make it a relatively valid criticism of religion. I count two (change "evolution" to "religion", and "millions" with "thousands.")

Perhaps one of the most common (and blatant) "no, you are!" arguments that this video shows is that the science of the history of the Earth is "just a belief, faith based. You can't prove it." This is the exact same argument that many atheists present against religion (although in many cases it's more of a caricature of an atheist rather than a real, experienced skeptic.) Trying to throw the exact same claim right back is just purely childish. (Yet this video goes even further, and throws right back the claims of "brainwashing" and "inconsistent with everything that we observe in the universe." It couldn't get more blatant even if it tried.)

The sad thing? Many Christians swallow this kind of text without a second thought, with no questions and no criticism whatsoever. Not even a mild "hmm, isn't this a bit of an exaggeration?" crosses their minds.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The "prophet" mentality

Many creationists and other believers, who vehemently oppose the theory of evolution, have this strange, twisted concept that Charles Darwin invented this crazy theory and now the whole scientific community just believes it without question, like it was some kind of holy scripture. Therefore if you discredit Darwin or his writings, you discredit the entirety of evolution.

These people do not seem to realize nor acknowledge the humongous amount of research and testing that has been performed since Darwin, and how much the theory has actually evolved (no pun intended) since his publications. (For example, Darwin had no idea about DNA and how it can be used to create a cladistic tree, or trace back the ancestry of a species and connect it to other species. This being just one tiny example out of many.)

It seems to be that many of these people cannot get rid of a "prophet" mentality. In other words, that truth (or alleged truth) is handed down to ordinary people by wise "prophets", and this information is either the whole, unchanging truth, or completely false and devious. How to know which it is happens by examining the prophet himself. If the prophet is questionable in some way, or if anything that he said can be proven to be false, then everything that he said is dubious and should not be trusted. After all, the Bible itself talks about prophets and how to distinguish true and false prophets.

Curiously, many of these believers don't even themselves realize that they are engaging in this kind of thinking. Not even if it's explained to them. No matter how you explain to them that science just doesn't work that way, it doesn't help.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The second law of thermodynamics

The laws of thermodynamics, especially the second one, are the favorites of creationists and apologists. Which is rather ironic (and hypocritical), really. Usually they oppose science and think that it's the work of the devil and exists just to discredit the existence of God. Of course when some creationist figured out that they could use the laws of thermodynamics to argue against "evolutionism" (which is really just a made-up term), the status of that part of science immediately jumped to completely credible and well-established fact (much unlike the rest of science, which is just a bunch of lies invented to deceive the faithful.)

Anyways, no such apologist actually understands the laws of thermodynamics. They have a vague "pop-culture version" of it, but that doesn't stop them from proudly announcing their understanding of it as well-established scientific hard fact.

(Unfortunately, scientists themselves are partly to blame. Personally I blame mostly Stephen Hawking and his book A Brief History of Time, which popularized the misconception that the the second law of thermodynamics means that everything must go towards chaos, and order increasing is a physical impossibility. Hawking may be a brilliant scientist, but I think he has done more harm than good at popularizing it in a manner that avoids misunderstandings.)

The creationist version of the second law is: Everything must always go towards disorder. Order cannot increase on its own.

Most creationists, and even many non-believers, swallow that without a second thought, even though it's extremely easy to disprove. I myself am increasing order right now, by writing this article. Am I breaking the second law of thermodynamics? If order can never increase, doesn't it mean exactly that? I have proven the second law false, so where's my Nobel prize?

A creationist will immediately object and say that I'm increasing order by using my consciousness and intelligence. That it's different. The order is not increasing "on its own." The obvious counter to that is: Where exactly does the second law of thermodynamics specify such an exception? The second law does not say "chaos must always increase, except if acted upon by an intelligent being." Nowhere will you see anything like that.

But I don't even have to resort to an intelligence increasing order. It happens in nature all by itself all the time.

For example, lava is molten rock material. It's basically just a completely amorphous blob of mineral molecules with extremely little order. Then thermodynamics happen: The blob of lava starts releasing its heat to its environment and therefore cooling down. Sometimes something awesome happens: As the lava solidifies and forms a rock, inside this rock crystals may form. Crystals are highly-ordered mineral molecules. (The extreme ordering of the molecules is what makes them crystals.)

So, nothing acted on the rock. No intelligence, no external force, no design. The lava just cooled down, releasing heat, and all by itself the completely chaotic amorphous blob transformed into highly-ordered crystal molecules.

Was the second law once again completely broken? Clearly order increased tremendously, with no external action. Why isn't this a huge mystery and open question in physics? Why isn't this called "the great crystal anomaly" or something similar? Are scientists in a huge conspiracy to not to talk about this?

No. The problem is that this is all just a huge misunderstanding of the second law of thermodynamics. Creationists just don't understand it.

What the second law says is that the total amount of entropy in a closed system never decreases. There's nothing in the law that says that entropy cannot decrease locally (as long as entropy increases somewhere else in the system by at least that much, so that its total amount remains the same or increases.)

There's nothing in the cooling lava that breaks this law. The amount of chaos inside the rock may have decreased, but that just means that the amount of chaos somewhere else has increased by at least that much. (In this particular case it was the heat that the rock released, which increases the entropy of the environment.)

There's nothing different with me writing this article: By doing so I'm consuming energy and releasing it in a form that has higher entropy. As the order of certain things increase when I write this, the amount of energy available for useful work overall decreases by at least that much (and in practice more.) In other words, I'm actually increasing (overall) chaos by writing this article, not decreasing it (even though order is increasing locally.) That's because I'm consuming energy, and releasing waste energy that increases entropy. The order is not coming from nothing.

(If you understand that notion, you can also understand why the second law implies that no perpetual motion machine is possible. It's the exact same principle: No machine can produce more useful work than the energy it consumes.)

There is nothing in the formation of stars, planets, molecules and living beings that would break the second law of thermodynamics. What the law is saying is simply that the if the amount of order (more precisely, energy available for useful work) increased somewhere, it means that it decreased by at least that much somewhere else.

Creationists cannot understand this, and in fact they refuse to understand this. The laws of thermodynamics are their pet arguments, so they simply cannot accept being wrong about them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Misattributing evidence

There's one curious aspect of the human psyche that's really, really hard to get rid of, and to spot the deductive error caused by it. Namely, the instinct to misattribute evidence (regardless of whether it's valid evidence or not.) This is done by the vast majority of theists, believers in the paranormal, conspiracy theorists and, sadly, even by many skeptics.

I once had a conversation with a friend about the belief in God. He told me a personal anecdote as one of the (many) reasons why he believes in God: Some years ago, when he was having a very difficult time in life, he was at a local church, and the pastor was speaking words of knowledge. My friend says that at one point the pastor started talking basically directly at him (starting with something like "there's a young man somewhere in that corner", and my friend says that he was surrounded mostly by old people and some women, so he was the only young man there) and listed quite specifically all the problems and difficult questions he had been having, gave answers to some of them and said that the rest would be resolved in time (or something along those lines.)

Now (and as I have commented in a previous post) the vast majority of skeptics make a big mistake at this point: They start discussing the event itself, and the possible natural explanations for it. However, I did know better than this.

If I had succumbed to start discussing the actual details of the event, me and my friend would have both made the same error in deduction: That the event, if true, was indeed a sign that God is real and that he affects this world (eg. by giving people words of knowledge) and that it would be a valid reason to believe in him.

No. This is a fallacy. The major problem here is misattributing the evidence. Even if the event happened exactly as he described, and even if it had indeed been something that defies any natural and logical explanation, that would still not tell us anything at all about what caused that phoenomenon or where it came from. On what grounds can one claim that the phenomenon was caused by a god? Why are all other possible hypotheses discarded in favor of this one? What's the justification?

The fact is: Even if the event did happen as described, we do not know what caused it.

A skeptic should be more savvy and note the fallacy in deduction from the very start, before going into details. It's very important to emphasize that even if the described events were real, they would still not be evidence of a god because we do not know what caused the events in the first place, what their source is. Claiming that it must have come from a god is completely unjustified.

In fact, the vast majority of "proofs" (for some reason theists really like to use that word instead of the more accurate "evidence", for some reason) for the existence of God fall into this very fallacy.

They often argue that something must have caused the Universe to exist, and that something is God. On what grounds is this claim made? They may argue that the Bible contains information and prophesies that were impossible for the people of the time to know, and therefore it must have come from God. How do they know this? They argue that archaeological evidence demonstrates that many of the events of the Bible really did happen. But how exactly is this any kind of evidence for the existence of God? They argue that miracle healings are proof of God. On what grounds? They argue that Jesus did indeed exist and did miracles. But how does this demonstrate the existence of a god? Some argue that they have seen ghosts. What's the relation to a god, exactly?

But the connection between "something extraordinary happened" and "therefore God must exist" is so strong and so deeply ingrained into the human psyche, that it's really difficult to remove and correct. More often than not, when the skeptic points out the mistake, when he points out that "even if that happened exactly as described, that would still not be evidence of any god", the believer does not understand what he means. Instead, he thinks that the skeptic is just rejecting evidence out of principle because he doesn't like it, shoving it aside without even considering it. It can be extraordinarily difficult to make the believer comprehend the nature of the deductive error.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Bible is the perfect word of God?

It's extremely common in Christianity to claim that the Bible is the absolute and perfect word of God, the perfect message from God to us, and that it contains exactly what God wants it to contain, no more, no less. The Bible is supposed to contain all the basic tenets of faith, and how we should live our lives.

Yet, when you examine the Bible, it's a really, really poor conveyor of such information. There's very little organization and order, tidbits of information are scattered randomly throughout the entire book, interspersed with random tidbits of unrelated things (like history, anecdotes, ancestor lists and parables) and overall it's very difficult to get a coherent picture of the entire doctrine.

This can be very easily seen by listening to any sermon or lecture on the Christian faith. The speaker or writer, when quoting the Bible, will jump wildly from place to place, often quoting small sections (usually just a passage or two) from here and there, in order to get a coherent description of even a small part of what constitutes the Christian doctrine.

And not only is all this information randomly spread through the whole book, it often consists of vague phrasings and expressions that are very much open to interpretation. It is, in fact, a very common statement made by Christians that in order to understand passages properly, you have to compare it to the rest of the Bible. This goes to tell how unclear many passages are.

And all this can really be seen. There are well over 30 thousand Christian denominations, all of them with more or less varying interpretations of the Bible, some of them with highly different interpretations than others, even when dealing with the most important core tenets of the religion (such as, for example, what is or isn't needed for salvation.)

How can this kind of book be called "perfect" in any way? The fact is that the Bible is far, far from perfect as any kind of basis for religious doctrine, and this causes a lot of disagreement between people and denominations.

If the Bible were really inspired by an all-powerful, perfect being who wants to convey to us a message that's as clear and unambiguous as possible, I would expect it to be much more coherent, organized and hierarchical. For starters, it should be divided logically into sections and subsections by type of content. For example like this:
  1. The basic tenets of faith (ie. what is necessary for salvation.)
  2. The law. (What God wants and doesn't want us to do. What's forbidden and what's allowed.)
  3. Life instructions. (Clear and unambiguous rules of thumb on how we should live.)
  4. The history of humanity and Christianity. (A methodical and clear description of the history relevant to Christianity.)
  5. Prophesies and the future.
  6. Aphorisms and other inspirational text.
  7. Glossary of terms, and additional notes.
Then, of course, it should use as unambiguous and clear terminology and phrasing as possible. (If there are terms that were foreign to the culture of the time, surely God could invent a new word for it and define it clearly in the glossary. That shouldn't be any kind of problem. Also if some terms had multiple or ambiguous meanings, the glossary could also be used to clarify them.)

This would have been perfectly possible even thousands of years ago. There's nothing in the languages of antiquity that would have made it impossible to organize a book clearly like this, or using clear and unambiguous terms and definitions.

In fact, if the Bible were written like this thousands of years ago, it would be quite a lot more indicative of divine inspiration than the current mess it is. (Of course it would still not be proof of it, but at least it would be a lot closer to the mark.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Mistaking emergent behavior for design

Most creationists argue that nature has been clearly designed, and therefore there must be a designer.

What is really happening here is that they are mistaking emergent behavior for design.

Emergence is the appearance of complex patterns from the interaction of simple rules. This can be seen all the time both in nature and in artificial situations (such as in some computer games.) Surprisingly complex behavior can result from the interaction between surprisingly simple rules. The outward appearance of the complex behavior might look a lot like it has a purpose and design, but when we actually study the underlying phenomena and rules behind it we discover that there actually is no purposeful design, that the overall complex behavior has just naturally emerged without any actual guiding hand.

It's very hard for the human mind to fully comprehend emergent behavior because it's a quite complex subject. Therefore people make the mistake all the time, and see patterns and design where in reality there are none. On top of that, creationists in particular are extremely biased and have an agenda to try to "prove" that the design is there. Because of this strong bias, they will refuse to even try to understand the true cause of the apparent design.

A guide to skepticism

I thought I'd lay out some of the basic principles on how one can gain more insight into skepticism and have a more rational approach at understanding reality, as well as understanding our limits in knowledge and avoid making deductive mistakes.
  1. Disabuse yourself of the notion that something can be deduced from an unknown. (Just because something is unknown doesn't mean you can jump to any kind of conclusion based on that. Doing so is an argument from ignorance.)
  2. Disabuse yourself of the notion that eyewitness testimony is in any way reliable. (It just isn't. This subject is too extensive to comment in more depth here.) Also disabuse yourself of the notion that the reliability of eyewitness testimony has anything to do with honesty, intelligence or mental illness. Also things like profession, education, titles and ranks have little to do with this.
  3. Disabuse yourself of the notion that human feelings and emotions, no matter how strong, are more reliable than physical observation, measurement and testing. 
  4. Disabuse yourself of the notion that all evidence is good evidence. (Not all evidence is valid, and even good evidence can be misinterpreted and misattributed.)
  5. Disabuse yourself of the notion that "the official explanation" must always be a false explanation and a coverup. (This doesn't mean that you should always accept official explanations without question. It means that you should get rid of the instinct to always reject it automatically.) Also disabuse yourself of the notion that experts aren't.
  6. Study how science works. Shove aside prejudice and misinformation about science and the scientific method, and get some actual information about it instead. Educate yourself, take classes, enroll in an educational institution, get first-hand experience on science. Disabuse yourself of the notion that the world-wide scientific community is in a huge conspiracy to discredit your world view.
  7. Disabuse yourself of the notion that skepticism means "stubborn closed-mindedness". Also disabuse yourself of the notion that "open-mindedness" means that you should accept everything based solely on questionable evidence (such as eyewitness testimony.)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

God, the lottery machine

Requests for prayers are something quite universal in and ubiquitous to Christianity. It's a very common custom in the vast majority of Christian denominations, and you see these requests all the time everywhere (especially nowadays in the internet era.) People request prayers for tons of things.

(Curiously, there's little support in the Bible for this. This kind of practice is not found in the Bible, nor is it suggested there. There might be one or two passages that could be loosely interpreted to somewhat support this notion, but even those are quite far-fetched. This prayer requesting ideology is mostly extra-biblical theology.)

The vast majority of Christians never think about what the prayer requesting custom implies. It implies that the more people pray, the higher the probability that God will answer. These requests always seek for as many people as possible to pray for the topic in question, as if that somehow increased the chances of success.

In other words, they seem to think that God works exactly like the lottery: The more lottery numbers you buy, the higher the chances of winning something. If there's a pool where many people submit money in order to buy lottery numbers, the chances of winning something gets the higher the more people participate.

Thus to them God is a lottery machine, even though they don't even realize that.

If I were God, I would be really appalled and offended by this kind of mentality. But maybe that's just me.

Religions take credit for what they didn't establish

It's rather contradictory and ironic that there's a common adage in Christianity (and possibly in other religions, but especially Christianity) that God's word and morals are eternal and never change, that they have always been and will always be the same, unchanged and perfect, yet when you look at the history of Christianity, what is and isn't considered morally good and morally bad has changed quite radically with the times. What was considered morally acceptable a couple of hundreds of years ago may well be abhorrent today, and the other way around.

The fact is, Christian "morals" have always adjusted to the secular morals of the time. For example, when slavery was generally considered acceptable, Christians generally considered it acceptable. Nowadays when slavery is generally considered abhorrent, Christians also consider it abhorrent. And this is but just one example of many.

The obnoxious thing about this is, however, that (many) Christians still maintain that all these morals come from the Bible. It doesn't matter if completely opposite moral values were considered biblical some hundreds of years ago than today, and that these "biblical" morals seem to always follow secular morals, Christians still claim that morals come from the Bible. Almost no Christian will admit that they do not, that in fact they are just trying to apply modern secular morals to what the Bible writes (rather than the other way around.)

What's happening here is that Christianity is trying to take credit from the hundreds of years of development in secular morality and human rights. They cannot accept nor admit that humans themselves are, in fact, capable of coming up with good and valuable morality, and instead try to shove whatever is currently morally acceptable into the Bible (sometimes by using really twisted interpretations) and then take credit, reverse the direction and claim that those morals actually come from the Bible (rather than the other way around.)

It becomes quite amusing (and sad at the same time) when they try to reconcile the biggest contradictions between modern secular morality and the Bible. The twisted explanations can become pretty wild. (I have seen really, really amazing attempts to eg. whitewash the fact that the mosaic law in the Bible permits a slave owner to not only own slaves, but to hit them.)

Some apologists can be incredibly more obnoxious than this, however. For example there are many of them (among others Kent Hovind, although he is certainly not the only one) who actually try to claim that secular atheism has never produced any scientific advances nor discoveries, and that those have actually all been made thanks to Christianity. (Nowadays it's also very common for muslims to claim this from Islam.) This kind of attempt to take credit and completely reverse the direction of events is just astonishingly obnoxious.

(It is a well known fact that modern science started to thrive most prominently when science was separated from theology and philosophy. Many hundreds of years ago those three things were actually considered just different aspects of the same thing. However, in the so-called age of enlightenment science was completely severed from theology and also from the most esoteric forms of philosophy, which allowed it to make progress in giant leaps afterward because of not being bound by religious nonsense.)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The non-dichotomy of belief

There are true dichotomies that most people nevertheless think are not. The most prominent example is theism vs. atheism. This is a true dichotomy: You are either one of those. If you are not a theist, you are an atheist, by definition. Yet most people think that "theist" and "atheist" are just the extremes of a spectrum, that there's a lot of "in-between" variants. That's not so.

On the other hand, the opposite is also true: There are non-dichotomies that most people think are true dichotomies. Perhaps the most prominent one is the belief in the existence of something. In this particular case there are three options: Either you believe in its existence, or you believe in its non-existence, or you have no belief either way. (This is different from theism vs. atheism because by the very definition of atheism, even someone who doesn't care one way or another is an atheist by definition.)

The prevalence of the idea that belief in something is a true dichotomy is quite prominent. It's extremely common to think that if someone says "I don't believe that God exists" means the same thing as "I believe God does not exist." However, those are two completely different propositions, and are not equivalent!

I like to compare this to the Goldbach's conjecture: The fact that you have no belief in it being true doesn't automatically mean that you believe it's false. There is a third option: You don't know if it's true or not, so you cannot believe either way.

For some reason it can be incredibly difficult to explain to a theist that the fact that someone doesn't believe in God doesn't necessarily mean that he claims that God doesn't exist.

Quantum powers

There's a curious phenomenon related to alleged miracles, the paranormal, psychic powers, divination and all kinds of other nonsense: Whenever the phenomenon in question is actually studied and measured, it somehow stops working.

The great James Randi is perhaps the most prominent debunker of such claims, and his method is pretty simple: Let's test if they really work. Somehow they never work in controlled double-blind experiments. Yet invariably the claimants afterward offer all kinds of excuses why it didn't work precisely at that moment. Some even go so far as to directly claim that the very presence of such a skeptic as Randi affects the result.

All these things should be named "quantum powers": They work as long as nobody is actually measuring them. When someone does, they somehow stop working.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Inane logic by Eric Hovind

In previous posts I have mentioned Ray Comfort (who, among other things, really loves to fallaciously play with words and is enamored with gnosticism) and William Lane Craig (who's a really smug pseudointellectual who thinks that "philosophy" trumps all science). Today I'd like to mention another creationist celebrity, Eric Hovind, the son of an even bigger creationist celebrity (Kent Hovind.)

When Eric is not just blindly repeating the same old tired arguments of his father (usually word-for-word), his own arguments tend to be on the really hilarious side.

For instance, one claim he just loves is "all arguments against God assume God."

It's hard to imagine weirder insane troll logic than this. He is saying that if you present any arguments against the existence of God, you are assuming the existence of God. Therefore your argument is contradictory and illogical.

The thing is, he presents this claim in all seriousness, as if it was actually a good and valid counter-argument. And many people are listening to him without batting an eye. Just like that. (It really tells something about the intellectual capabilities of his audience, doesn't it?)

The argument is completely equivalent, and equally silly, as saying for example "if you claim that this car is not red, you are assuming that it is red" or "if you claim that you can't square a circle you are assuming that you can square a circle" ("and therefore your argument is contradictory and invalid.") It makes no sense.

Of course the idea behind this silly argument is the same kind of pre-emptive self-defense mechanism as with "you are not really an atheist" (which I have mentioned before.) It predisposes the listener to reject all and every argument against God outright, without even listening to or thinking about it. After all, if it's an argument against God, it already assumes God, so it's automatically contradictory and thus incorrect, isn't it?

This is just a more complicated (but not less childish) way of putting fingers in one's ears, singing "lalalala" and saying "I don't have to listen to anything you are saying because you are wrong."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

God's two sides

The most common Christian theology is that God is infinitely merciful and just. This is repeated over and over like a mantra.

Of course being merciful and just doesn't mean that bad people should never be punished. However, it does mean that the punishment should be humane and uncruel. There's a reason why things like torture and unusual punishment are considered to be against basic human rights and morals. Punishing people for their crimes does not mean that they should be made to suffer needlessly.

When you read how God behaves in the Bible, it paints a rather different picture from an "infinitely merciful God." And I'm not talking just about eternal torture in Hell. I'm referring to how God punishes living people in the Bible's stories.

Noah's flood is really ubiquitous to the Christian theology. It's really prevalent and something found everywhere, from serious theological papers to children's books. That's right, children's books. Basically no Christian seems to even try to think what kind of story it is.

So humanity had become completely corrupt and wicked, and God wanted to destroy them all. How does the infinitely merciful and just God does this? Does he, for example, make them just disappear? (After all, if God is all-powerful, that shouldn't be any problem at all.) Or maybe just make them suddenly die and that's it? No, he decides to flood everything.

Flooding is a huge catastrophe that causes enormous amount of destruction and suffering. There's probably no need to point out the news footage from recent tsumanis in order to get a good picture of what it looks like. It's a horrible, horrible way of making people, adults, children, everybody, die in agony and suffering. And this is being told in children's books.

Or what about Sodoma and Gomorra? God wanted to punish these cities for their corruption and wickedness, so what does the infinitely merciful and just God do? He makes fire rain from the skies. This is ostensibly even worse than flooding them.

Do these and other similar acts sound like the behavior of an infinitely merciful and just ruler? Or do they sound like the behavior of a cruel and power-hungry dictator who has no qualms in making his subjects suffer horrible and agonizing deaths because he doesn't like them, even though he could perfectly well treat them in a more humane way?

What exactly is the claim of infinite mercy and justice based on? Not on the Bible stories, that's for sure.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Debates are pretty useless

Many prominent apologists and skeptics often engage in public debates on the subject matter of religion and other related topics. These debates tend to be quite popular, especially when the debaters are "celebrities" of sorts.

There are rare instances where such public debates are actually meaningful and useful. For example there was a televised debate between two people supporting the existence and activities of the Catholic church vs. the late Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry who argued that said church has done much more harm than good. This was a superb debate, where arguments were clear, concise and easy to understand, and directly to-the-point (especially, and unsurprisingly, those by Hitchens and Fry) and which did not sink into arguing about minutiae and terminology, muddling the whole issue. There was a public opinion poll before and after the debate, and the result was quite radical.

However, those kinds of debates tend to be more the exception than the norm. In the vast majority of cases such debates are an exercise in futility. They might start with clear statements (which have often been previously written by the debaters), but as arguments are thrown back an forth, the whole thing usually sinks to a senseless arguing about small things, such as the meaning of words (as I have mentioned in previous posts, apologists really love to play with words and commit all kinds of fallacies related to that) and all kind of wordplay and hypotheticals that have little to no relevance to the actual question in hand. The opponent's counter-arguments will seldom, if ever, be acknowledged and accepted.

One big problem is that most of these debates have a format were each debater has a large amount of time (like for example 10 minutes) to flood the discussion with dozens and dozens of claims, concepts and terms. It can be quite difficult to respond to all of them while at the same time presenting new arguments. There also tends to be a great disconnect between claims and their responses when there's over ten minutes of rapid-fire argumentation in between them. It's basically impossible to stop a chain of logic from the very start, if it starts from unjustified (or even outright false) premises.

Also, the end result tends to be that no listener changes their opinion. Usually the supporters of one debater will claim that he or she won, while the supporters of the other debater will do the same. (Also, rather obnoxiously, sometimes at least one of the debaters themselves will later claim that he/she clearly "won" the debate. I have noticed that this seems to be much more common among apologists and theists than among skeptics, who tend to remain much humbler.)

Some people argue that debates are a good way to get information and answers to arguments. However, this is not something that requires a debate. The most useful parts tend to be the opening and closing statements, which are most often pre-written by the debaters. This is something that you can read from blogs and wikis. You don't need a debate for that.

Religious beliefs and the sunk cost fallacy

People who are deeply religious and have been so for a long time (and especially if they have been since childhood) often have a really hard time letting go if they start having doubts and thinking about these things more rationally.

There is, of course, a multitude of reasons for this. Religious dogmas contain tons and tons of "self-protection mechanisms", ie. notions and ideas that exist to make it psychologically as hard as possible for the deeply religious to discard the religion. These mechanism are what make religions so prevalent and pervasive.

Anyways, I have been wondering if at least in some cases one aspect that's strongly in play is a concept of "sunk cost fallacy." This is a fallacy that's most often applied to economics: If someone has invested a lot of money in a project that turns out to be a fiasco that never gets finished with a satisfactory result, this person will often have a strong aversion to just stop funding it because the idea of just outright losing all that money is unbearable. It's better, in their minds, to spend just a little more in order to get something sellable out of the project than simply dropping it and accepting a pure loss of money. It's better to get even some of the money back from a half-finished project than nothing at all. In the worst cases such people have sunk vast amounts of money on hopeless projects. It can become a vicious cycle: The more money is spent, the less motivation to just end it (because the total losses would be very large.)

When speaking about religion the question is not necessarily about money, but about time, effort, work and principles. It may well be that someone who has been deeply religious for tens of years might at some level, even without realizing it, think along the lines of "I have spent so much time in this, so much effort, studied the Bible so much, invested so much emotionally, made so many friends, that I cannot just outright stop now. Even the idea of stopping now and throwing all that away is unbearable. Out of the question." They might not literally think like that, but that very notion may well be one of the driving forces behind them keeping their religious beliefs. The very idea that they might have spent so much time and effort on a lie is so unbearable that they don't even want to consider it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Argument from ignorance

The so-called argument from ignorance is incredibly ubiquitous to every irrational belief out there. And I mean, really, really ubiquitous.

How many times have you seen or heard the stock phrase "science doesn't know everything" as if that were some kind of valid justification for believing whatever that person wants to believe? I have seen it over and over. I have had good friends tell me that (in exactly those words.) The argument is completely nonsensical to justify anything. I really can't understand why so many people think this is such a good argument.

If you get into a discussion with a theist, there's approximately a 99% chance that some form of argument from ignorance will pop up sooner or later (probably sooner.) It can take many forms, the one above being just one of them. Other typical examples include things like "where did the Universe come from?" and lots of claims that start with "science can't explain..."

It's also extremely common among many theists and apologists, that if they succeed in making the skeptic say "I don't know" (or something equivalent), they consider it a victory. As if that were some kind of admission that surely then God must exist, doesn't he?

It really comes down to a false dichotomy: Either you can give a natural explanation for something, or you must accept that God exists. There's no third option.

It's quite unfortunate that many skeptics are actually afraid of just outright saying "I don't know." Personally I don't have the slightest problem in saying it. If someone, for example, asks me "where did the Universe come from?" I just say "I don't know." Why should that be a problem?

(I often follow that up by throwing the same question back. If the answer is something along the lines of "I believe God created it" I ask "and how do you know that?" And so on.)

Skeptics shouldn't be afraid of saying "I don't know." In fact, science and progress thrives when we accept our ignorance. It drives curiosity and makes us try try to discover the explanations, the mechanism behind those things. It's because of the brave people who dared to admit their ignorance that we have progressed so much in science and technology.

The bane of young Earth creationists

Young Earth creationists can get away with lots of nonsensical claims about science when dealing with subjects that are complicated and hard to understand. For example they will argue that the different dating methods don't work, and are off by something like six orders of magnitude. Because this is a complex subject, many of their listeners believe it without much thought.

However, there's one aspect of physics that even creationists don't dare to question: The speed of light. (Which is curious, really, because the speed of light is exactly as esoteric and outside the realm of everyday life as is something like radioactive decay.)

Therefore young Earth creationists have a real problem with distant stars and galaxies, which are far, far beyond 6 thousand light-years away, being visible.

There are basically two schools of thought among them to explain it away: Some of them just make a vague statement that maybe God simply created everything at once and created the light on its way so that stars would be immediately visible. (They get a bit uneasy when asked why God would want to deliberately make the Universe look a lot older than it really is, according to them. Why the deception?) The other school of thought tries to twist physics and claim that physicists are either deluded or lying about the properties of light in the past. (No actual math is ever shown, of course. Just vague statements and waving of hands.)

The most common problem with both of them is that they seem to think that stars are just standing there, not doing much. However, that's not true. There's a lot of things happening in the observable Universe, and we can trace those events back a lot further in the past than just 6 thousand years.

SN 1987A is a wonderful example of this. It was a supernova event observed in 1987. This was a rather exceptional supernova in that it was surrounded at a great distance by a dust cloud (material ejected by another closeby stellar event in a very distant past.) Several months after the supernova the dust cloud was illuminated by its light.

Since we know the speed of light, we can therefore calculate the distance between the supernova and the dust cloud, and using simple triangulation we can calculate how far the supernova was from us. It turns out that it was approximately 168 thousand light-years from us.

In other words, that star exploded 168 thousand years ago, which is way before the alleged age of the Universe by the young Earth creationists. This is a problem for both schools of thought among them.

For the first ones, it brings into question God's honesty. If the Universe was indeed created just a bit over 6 thousand years ago, then God had to deliberately create light in such ways as to make it look like stellar events such as the SN 1987A have happened way, way before that. Why such a deception? Why is this alleged god lying to us?

For the second one, it becomes a physical impossibility. One common claim they make is that light was faster in the past. Even without going into the physics of that (there are many things wrong with that thought; for example, light slowing down affects redshift quite a lot) it just doesn't fit: For the most distant galaxies to be visible to us while still being just 6 thousand years old, light would have had to slow down by about six orders of magnitude (ie. about a million-fold.) That would mean that SN 1987A was actually about a million times farther from us, and therefore the explosion had to be about a million times brighter than it was. I think it's a physical impossibility for a supernova to be a million times brighter than supernovas observed today. Also the dust cloud would have to be a million times larger and have about a million times more matter in it. I think this would start making it about galaxy-sized (and would have quite a significant gravity.)

More importantly, though, if SN 1987A was a million times farther from us than what triangulation tells us, how far are the most distant galaxies then? They are way, way farther than SN 1987A. Which in fact creates vicious cycle: If all galaxies are really a million times farther than they look like, it means that light would have to had been even faster in the past (by another six orders of magnitude) in order for them to be visible... which means that SN 1987A was actually 12 orders of magnitude farther, and so on and so forth. You see the problem here? It just doesn't work.

It's actually quite amusing reading how young Earth creationists try to struggle with all these observations and explain them away.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Where do atheists get their morals from?

One of the oddest arguments I have ever heard is "where do atheists get their morals from?" This argument seems almost exclusive to the United States, as I have seldom heard this being presented anywhere else.

The question seems very odd because the answer is so simple: We are a social, intelligent, thinking species, and we can deduce what's good and bad for the society. As a society we can agree which rules we should follow that benefit everybody, and how to deter members of the society from doing harm to others.

I don't understand what's so hard in understanding that.

If we delve more into the origins of morals, they come directly from evolution. Humans have been a social species for a long, long time, and it's the reason why humans have flourished and succeeded in survival. There are certain behaviors within a society that naturally maintain this beneficial status, while other behaviors disrupt it. The beneficial behaviors help in survival, while the harmful behaviors impede survival. Therefore it's only natural that the beneficial behaviors get favored by the societies within the species, while the harmful ones are abhorred. Instincts like empathy and altruism have been naturally selected because they benefit the society and therefore the survival of the species.

Imagine two hypothetical, isolated human societies. One of them behaves like what these American Christians imagine atheists to behave: They are immoral and selfish, they have no qualms in harming others for their own benefit, and they have no concept of empathy. They are all savages and ravaging criminals who steal and kill as they like. The other society is a civilized one, with an agreed code of proper behavior, where everybody helps those in need, where the society cares for its own, and where criminals are punished and deterred.

Which one of those two societies has a larger chance of survival, especially in harsh conditions? I don't think it could be clearer where morals come from: Evolution.

"You are not an atheist"

In a previous post I mentioned the stigma heavily associated with the term "atheism" in some countries, and how even some very outspoken atheists avoid calling themselves that, instead opting for the cop-out term "agnostic" (which is a category error, really.) I also mentioned the weird argument that some theists often throw that "you are not really an atheist."

In some countries (especially the United States, but also some other countries) the word "atheist" really does carry a lot of baggage with it. If you declare yourself to be an atheist, you are immediately assumed to hold a lot of other views as well.

In itself, "atheist" simply means "not theist", in other words, someone who has no belief in gods. There's nothing else that the word implies. You can believe all kinds of nonsense and still be an atheist. For example Buddhists are atheists (because they are not theists), and many UFO worshippers (such as Raelians) are also atheists. There exist many people who even believe in the paranormal and supernatural, yet are still atheists (because they don't have theistic beliefs.) Atheism in itself does not imply skepticism.

However, as said, in many countries "atheism" carries a lot baggage. If you are an "atheist" you are immediately assumed to also be a so-called strong atheist (ie. one who has the conviction that no gods exist), anti-religious, immoral, rational skeptic, secular humanist, believer in science and evolution, believer in the appearance of the Universe ex nihilo, believer in abiogenesis, pro-choice, liberal, feminist, and so on and so forth. That's quite a lot of baggage to carry. (Many outspoken atheists do fit many of those descriptions. However, that's not what the term "atheism" in itself implies.)

Many theists actually get quite dogmatic about it, if you try to discuss the real meaning of the term. Some of them go to ridiculous lengths to try to argue how the word "atheist" is the exact same thing as what's called "strong atheist", as well as implying many of those mentioned things. I have never quite understood why they are so dogmatic about it.

Which brings up to the subject of that weird argument that some theists use as some kind of "attack" against atheists when discussing with them, that if they show any kind of "weak atheism" (in the sense that they admit not knowing something for certain) they will vehemently claim something along the lines of "you are not an atheist."

For a long time it puzzled me why some theists pursue that notion so vehemently and why they think it's some kind of good counter-argument to anything. Even if we disregard for a moment the true meaning of the term, what does it matter if someone is or isn't a (strong) atheist? Shouldn't this person's arguments be what matters, not what we classify him or her?

One day a realized what the idea is: It's some kind of twisted notion that nobody can be a true atheist (ie. strong atheist) with good reasons. They are just pretending, and inventing all kinds of excuses. Deep inside they "know that God does exist, they just deny it."

The "logic" here is that since an atheist cannot be one for any good reason, the theist doesn't have to listen to those reasons either. They are just excuses that the self-proclaimed atheist invented, and thus can be ignored and rejected outright, without consideration. When the theist convinces himself and others of this, it predisposes them to not listen to any arguments that an atheist may present. It's a defense mechanism. This is closely related to the notion of "poisoning the well".