Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lee Strobel and contradictory eyewitness testimony

In his book The Case for Christ Lee Strobel compares the techniques used in criminal cases to resolve the veracity of alleged events with how we can do the same for the events described in the Bible. One of the running themes throughout the book is how, for example, eyewitness testimony has been crucial in many criminal cases to convict the perpetrators. This way he tries to give credence to the (alleged) eyewitness testimony documented in the Bible.

This comparison, however, fails on many points. One specific point, closely related to this theme, where this completely fails is that Strobel completely ignores the significance of contradictory testimony.

There's a reason why police, when interrogating suspects who might have collaborated in perpetrating a crime, will keep them separate: So that they won't get their story straight. In other words, if the suspects give contradictory statements, that will be a strong indication that they are lying.

At the very least, contradictory testimony puts the trustworthiness of all the testimony into question.

Many of the events in the gospels that Strobel tries to justify via eyewitness testimony is actually contradictory between the gospels. For example the events of what happened when the women went to Jesus' tomb are contradictory in all the gospels.

If we follow Strobel's rationale regarding eyewitness testimony, what this tells us is that the whole story is suspect and not very trustworthy. Most certainly a very weak case.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Applying the moral argument to God himself

I think there's a question that seldom gets asked from apologists (who advocate the argument from morality):

"Is God a moral being?"

If they advocate the moral argument (ie. the notion that morals somehow exist independent of humans and have been "created" by something) and they answer "yes" to that question, the argument becomes circular. If God is a moral being, then said morality has to, according to their own argument, exist independent of God and have been created by something else.

If God is not a moral being, then how can he even dictate morality to others? Wouldn't morality thus be by definition subjective, something that God came up with?

The whole problem with this entire argument is that it's self-contradictory. The core problem is that it assumes that morals have to somehow been "created" for them to "exist." As if they were some kind of immaterial entities floating out there that something created and can manipulate like they were objects or something.

The actual situation is that morals are simply a function of how living, thinking beings work. A side-effect. An emergent behavior of simple physical laws acting on complex mechanisms. They are not any kind of entities that exist independent of us, floating somewhere out there affecting our brains. They don't have to "be created" by anything.

"I used to be an atheist like you"

"... then I took an arrow in the knee." (Sorry, I just had to.)

Seriously, though, it seems to be a rather common tactic among many creationists, apologists and street preachers when they engage in an one-on-one conversation with an atheist, that they claim that they were atheists as well, but then they studied what Christianity had to offer and came to the logical and rational conclusion that it makes the most sense.

From a non-insignificant amount of experience I can tell that in many cases this is a lie, or at the very least a deliberate twisting of the truth. The majority of secular people who become believers in Christianity as adults did not, unlike these people claim, do it because of studying Christianity and all other points of view and coming to the rational conclusion that Christianity must be true and everything else false. No, in the vast majority of cases people become believers not because of rational decisions but because of emotional reasons. It's only afterwards (sometimes even years afterwards) that they try to rationalize it.

In many cases when you actually start talking with them and what they (allegedly) used to believe before they converted, you will find out that they were not, in fact, acquainted at all with skepticism, logic, science and the scientific method. You will quite quickly get the impression that rather than having studied all sides thoroughly and impartially, this person was simply proselytized and given a biased and narrow point of view, and this person believed it. They will commonly present all the stereotypical misconceptions about atheism, skepticism and science (as well as the different branches of science dealing with biology and the history of the Universe and life.)

I'm not sure why exactly they try this "I use to be an atheist too" tactic. Perhaps in the naive hope that they will give the impression that they somehow relate to the other person and convince them that they know and understand their perspective (when in fact they don't, especially if the other person is an experienced and well-studied skeptic who knows all the tricks in the book that apologists use.)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The argument from morality is just outright strange

I have written about this subject before, but I just can't help but to find the argument from morality extremely strange.

The reason for this is that I have lived all my life in northern Europe, and I have a lot of experience on Christianity here (and the many denominations of it here), for over 30 years, and I have never, not even once, heard this argument being presented.

It wasn't until I started watching videos and reading blogs from American skeptics that I first heard this argument, and heard that seemingly this is a very popular argument among religious people in the United States, who seemingly think that it's an extremely good one.

When I first heard the argument, it sounded extremely silly. I have several good friends who are devoted Christians, and when I told them about this argument, they found it a strange argument as well (as incredible as that might sound to Americans.)

The truth is that this argument is basically completely non-existent in Europe, and most people, even devoted Christians, who hear it find it strange (at least if they are smart enough to understand it.) Or at least that has been the case for a long time. (Unfortunately it seems that in later years American creationism and apologetics is getting foothold in European Christians, and their nonsense is starting to spread here as well. You still don't hear this and other equally silly arguments here much, but I have the impression that they are steadily getting more popular.)

The major reason for this is, I think, because something like 85% of northern Europeans are secular. (Similar numbers are true for many other European countries as well, but the percentage tends to become smaller the more south we go.)

Many American Christians live in a social bubble where they can pretend that the rest of the world doesn't exist. They get to keep this false notion that the only thing stopping the country from sinking into total chaos is because the majority of people are Christians. In other words, most people behave in a socially acceptable manner because they are Christians, and atheists are a very small minority, and thus cannot cause much trouble because all the Christians are keeping them in check. Thus they can easily come up with silly arguments like "atheists have no moral values, and have no problem in killing, raping and pillaging, because they don't believe in a higher authority."

The situation is completely different here. Being secular/atheist is the norm, the majority position. You can quite safely assume that the average person is secular. Being deeply religious is the exception, the odd-one-out. And quite clearly society keeps going as normal and has not sunk into total chaos and destruction. Therefore the argument in question would just sound silly because it's clearly just not true. That's why not even Christians present it. It would be like "huh? What the hell are you talking about?"

This is why it just keeps sounding really silly when I keep hearing this argument being made over and over mostly by American apologists and creationists, as if it were some kind of good and convincing one.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Argument from eloquence

It's an interesting psychological phenomenon that people will more easily believe a person who speaks in a very eloquent and understandable manner, no matter how false this person's claims are, as long as they are at least remotely plausible and believable (without putting much thought on it.)

This is, in fact, how most of religions, conspiracy theories, different forms of denialism, blatant historical revisionism and other such things are so successful.

When an actual scientist or historian delivers a lecture, it tends to be dry, plodding, filled with tedious (but necessary) facts, many of which can easily go over the head of the average listener. Also, in average, the average such lecture tends to be outright boring and uninteresting to the average person because it has nothing that would pick their curiosity.

However, when an eloquent conspiracy theorist, creationist or other such person delivers a lecture, they know how to raise interest and curiosity about what they are saying. They know what to say and how to say it, and how to deliver it in a manner that's easily understood. They are basically playing with human psychology (many of them without even consciously knowing it.) Their listeners will on average not check facts, will not check if what's being said is actually true, and will not have the education and background to recognize dubious claims and fallacious arguments when they are presented.

With this you can convince the average layman of almost anything. People have been convinced in this manner of the most ridiculous things that go against all available evidence and experimentation.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Perfection of the Bible, and apologetics

While it's not a universally held belief among all Christian denominations, it's nevertheless a good majority of them that claim the perfection and infallibility of the Bible. In other words, the Bible is the perfect word of God, without flaw and error.

The concept of the Bible being perfect is in drastic contradiction with the very concept of apologetics.

When talking about Christianity, "apologetics" means, basically, three things:
  1. Forming a coherent and consistent doctrine of the Christian religion from the different parts scattered all over the Bible.
  2. Interpreting and explaining passages that are unclear, metaphoric, poetic, prophetic, or otherwise not trivially understandable.
  3. Reconciling apparent contradictions and differences between different parts of the Bible, especially those describing the same event, or the same tenet of the Christian doctrine.
One cannot help but point out how the very need for such apologetics is in drastic contradiction with the alleged perfection of the Bible.

If you need fallible humans to gather bits and pieces scattered all over the place into a coherent and clear whole, from a book that's allegedly inspired by a perfect God, a book that is itself allegedly perfect, then that sounds to me like anything but perfect. If the Bible were perfect, it would already be easily understandable without the help of thousands of scholars and apologists (who can't even agree among themselves.)

Likewise if some message in the Bible is in such a metaphorical or poetic form that understanding it requires heavy interpretation, that also speaks of it being far from perfect. A perfect doctrine ought to be written in such a clear and unambiguous way as to minimize all possible mistaken interpretations. Writing things in vague metaphors is deliberately asking for it to be misinterpreted. Either God is incompetent or deliberately trying to cause confusion.

More blatantly, the very need for apologetics to explain away contradictory descriptions speaks loudly against the Bible being perfect. It doesn't even matter whether these contradictions can be rationally reconciled or not; the very need for such reconciliation is enough to show the imperfection of the text.

Many Christians will claim that there are no such contradictions. This is a lie (and quite hypocritically Christians seem to have no problems in lying when defending their faith.) What they really mean by "there are no contradictions or errors" is "all contradictions can be explained away in a manner that satisfies me." Reconciling contradictions does nothing to remove the fact that the text contains them.

Let's take an example: There are two stories about what Judas did after he betrayed Jesus. One says that he was repentant an hung himself, the other does not say he repented and he instead was eviscerated. One says that he threw the money he got into a temple, while the other says he bought a field with the money. Apologists try to reconcile these two completely different narratives by trying to merge them somehow. Regardless of what they try to do, the very need to do this is a clear indication that the text is not perfect. A perfect text would not have such contradictions and would not need such apologetics.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Inconsistencies with the Roman census

Chapter 2 of the gospel of Luke tells us the following:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
Such censuses were indeed performed in ancient Rome, and they did indeed require for people who were not located at their regular place of residence at the moment to return there for the census.

However, while this is a known historical fact, this passage actually heavily contradicts this in a rather drastic manner. It says that Joseph went to Bethlehem because he belonged to the house and line of David. Not because his residence was in Bethlehem.

If the fact that Joseph's permanent residence was not Bethlehem but Nazareth is unclear, Luke himself confirms this a few verses later:
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.
There are two blatant contradictions here. One is in the text itself. Verses 3 and 4 say "and everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David..." Then verse 39 says: "they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth." In other words, Joseph went away from his own town to Bethlehem, even though the census required everyone to go to their own town, as stated by the text itself.

The other contradiction is with the historical fact that Roman censuses required everybody to return to their permanent residence. There's absolutely nothing in history that would indicate in any way that the census would require anybody to move to the town of a very distant ancestor (in this case an ancestor of over a thousand years prior.)

The most likely explanation for this contradiction is that, very probably, there were two widespread but conflicting myths by the time that the gospel of Luke was written. The first was that the promised messiah would be born in Bethlehem (there are indications that Jewish rabbis had this interpretation at that time). The second was that Jesus was being called "Jesus of Nazareth". (In those times it was common practice to "surname" people by either their father's name or the town they were born, in order to distinguish them from other people with the same name.)

Therefore the author of the gospel had a dilemma: Jesus had to be born both in Bethlehem (due to the interpretation that the promised messiah would be born there) and also in Nazareth (because that's what Jesus was widely referred to.) Therefore he concocted this clever way around the dilemma: Write that Jesus was physically born in Bethlehem (due to the alleged sensus) but his "official childhood residence" was in Nazareth (so that his "surname" would make sense.)

Using a sensus as an excuse for Joseph and Mary to be in Bethlehem at that precise moment seems to be pretty sloppy, though. There are myriads of less contradictory reasons why they could have been there.

(Of course I'm talking from the narrative point of view here. The entire story is most probably completely fictional.)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

An ice meteor freezes the Earth?

It's often funny how creationists try to argue about physics, when they have absolutely no idea about physics. You get all kinds of vague references to different scientific theories (or, more precisely, to small parts of them) to try to argue for a certain claim. For example, some creationists try to argue for the reason why we see even the most distant galaxies by alluding to the general theory of relativity, and how time passes at different speeds depending on the strength of the gravity field. They have absolutely no understanding, nor care, what other (very visible) consequences there would be if the timescale difference between the solar system and the intergalactic space would be that great (the list of such consequences would be quite large, and most of them would be quite evident, and that's assuming we could actually live in such an environment) nor do they even understand how the speed of light in vacuum works.

But never mind that example. One less popular example, but one that's still claimed by several creationists, is that the flood of the Bible was caused by a gigantic ice meteor that crashed on the Earth and cooled it, caused the ice polar caps, and so on. This was one of the favorite hypotheses of the famous Kent Hovind (and it might still be, who knows.) Some other creationists are blindly repeating it.

There is so much wrong about this whole idea that it's outright amusing.

Just for starters, let's forget for a moment the actual collision, and let's just imagine that we place a mountain-sized ice meteor on the surface of the Earth. How much would it cool down the global temperature? I'll leave the calculations to someone else because I'm not a climatologist nor a physicist, but the effect would be quite minor. Nowhere even close to what Hovind is claiming (ie. from basically a worldwide tropical climate to the modern one, with ice caps.)

But that was only a minor thing. The major flaw in this whole thing is the infantile and naive thinking of "an ice meteor is cold, therefore it would freeze the Earth." This is like thinking that if I throw an ice cube at you at bullet speed, you will get colder.

It doesn't matter if the meteor is made of ice or rock. It will have a certain mass, and if it falls on Earth, it will release hundreds, if not thousands, of kilotons of energy. That's thermonuclear bomb quantities. And that's just for a smallish meteor of some metric tons of weight. Hovind is talking about an enormous ice meteor, like mountain-sized. Its impact with the Earth would release the energy equivalent to thousands and thousands of thermonuclear bombs, causing a worldwide inferno. Rather than cooling the Earth down, it would basically scorch it.

Friday, June 14, 2013

New information appearing in organisms

There is a mantra often repeated by creationists: "There is no known observable process by which new genetic information can be added to an organism's genetic code."

They consider this a scientific fact. Yet, curiously, only creationists say this, not scientists. The actual fact is that this is an invention of creationists. Actual biologists and physicists don't have any problem in understanding how genetic code can become more complex over time without breaking any laws of physics. Only creationists can't understand this. (Or, more precisely, creationists refuse to accept any explanation about this, even if the explanation comes from somebody who actually knows how physics work.)

The amount of information that can be said to exist in a system is, in fact, very closely related to the concept of entropy. The more "information" there is in a system, the less entropy, and vice-versa. (After all, "information" is a form of "order", which is something measured by entropy.)

There is absolutely nothing in the laws of physics, not in thermodynamics nor in any other field, that would forbid entropy from decreasing locally due to physical effects. The only thing that thermodynamics says is that the total amount of energy cannot change, and that the total entropy never decreases. In other words, entropy can freely decrease locally as long as it increases by at least that much somewhere else. Also energy can freely move around as long as its total amount doesn't change. Nothing of this breaks any laws of physics.

As I'm writing this blog post, I'm both decreasing entropy and increasing the amount of information inside certain systems. However, this does not break any laws of physics. By doing this I'm consuming energy, which is released mostly as heat, which increases the universe's entropy more than what this information I'm writing is decreasing it. (Thus, perhaps a bit ironically, by writing this I'm increasing the universe's total entropy, rather than decreasing it, even though it's decreasing locally.)

There isn't much difference compared to living organisms gaining new genetic information. As genetic changes happen over time, the universe's entropy increases (because, basically, a lot of energy is being used for all these changes, and the waste energy produced by this increases entropy.) Some of these changes add new information to the genetic code, which is retained due to natural selection. No laws of physics are being broken by this. As said, producing this new information actually "wasted" a lot more energy overall than the amount of gained information, so the total entropy of the universe has increased overall by this whole process, and no laws of physics are being broken.

And this is not pure speculation. Unlike the creationist mantra claims, such new useful information has been observed to happen spontaneously in living organisms, and the mechanisms for this are very well understood. For example some bacteria have gained the ability to feed on nylon (a material that didn't even exist until the 1950's.) Even some humans have gained immunity to AIDS due to a genetic mutation. And there are many other examples.

None of this breaks any laws of physics. Only creationists say that it does.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Creationists vs. aliens

There's a very reasonable argument sometimes made that even if we entertained the idea that life on Earth was "intelligently created", we would have to first rule out natural causes for that before jumping to the conclusion that it must have been a god. The most obvious natural cause for it would be if an alien species from somewhere else had planted life on Earth.

So far there's little reason to believe that life on Earth was caused by an intelligent being or beings, as the vast majority of phenomena causing the diversity of life can be explained by the laws of physics. But as said, even if we did consider the possibility, jumping to a supernatural god is not the only choice, nor is it the most reasonable choice. Before even considering such supernatural explanations (and especially before considering it the most likely explanation), all the natural explanations (such as aliens) should be completely ruled out.

A more fundamental point that this argument is trying to make is that even if the appearance of life on Earth couldn't be explained by simple natural processes, a god is not the only possible explanation. There are other alternatives as well.

But of course creationists, the dishonest liars they are, love to distort this argument and build a straw man out of it. They like to spout things like "Dawkins considers aliens to have created life on Earth", completely (and probably deliberately) missing the point. Basically what they are wanting to say is "ha ha, those silly atheists, they think that aliens created life on Earth! How crazy is that?"

But what else can you expect from such dishonest hypocrites as creationists?

"Science is your religion"

Sometimes religious people will tell to a skeptic/atheist that "science is your religion" (or something to that effect.) In other words, they try to put all "belief systems" at the same level, and trying to give the impression that "believing in science" is no better than believing in gods.

I'm not even going to go to what "religion" actually means. However, from a certain perspective that claim is partially true. For example I tend to believe science significantly more easily and without having personally examined the evidence, than any religious or other supernatural claims. The reason for this is that science has earned my trust.

Unlike religion, science tends to produce actual, tangible and useful applications. Religion does not invent and produce new devices, new technology or new medicine, nor does it help us discover how the universe works, what causes which disease, and so on. It's those scientists doing experiments, building measurement devices, doing countless hours of endless work on their fields of expertise who produce these innovations.

Unlike religion, science is a self-correcting method that constantly seeks to better itself to be more accurate, increase its own knowledge and produce better innovations. Unlike religion, it's science that enables progress.

Unlike religion, science has proven to be right again and again. During the entire history of humanity, whenever there has been an unknown, religion has given a made-up answer that has turned out to be completely incorrect, while science has eventually discovered an answer that actually works. Unlike religion, science has an astounding track record of finding the actual truth about things. And unlike religion, most of these findings end up producing actual useful applications that better our lives.

Having seen how science works, what its methods are, and what kinds of results it produces, it more than deserves my trust. If the worldwide scientific community reaches a consensus about something, I'm more than happy to accept it without studying the evidence for myself.

Does this mean that science is never wrong? Of course not. Science does get things wrong sometimes. However, as already said, science is a self-correcting mechanism. It finds out if its previous conclusions were wrong and corrects them. This means that even if sometimes the wrong conclusions are made, they will be eventually fixed. Besides, science is not completely off the mark very often, and has a quite good track record of being at least close to correct.

This is much unlike religion. Having seen how religion works, what its methods are, and what kinds of results it produces, it deserves no trust whatsoever. There aren't many things in this world that one should distrust more than religion.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Another dishonest tactic of creationists

One quite dishonest tactic that many creationists (and other type of religious apologists) use is to take an opinion held by a small minority of atheists/skeptics/scientists, and generalize it and claim that all of them hold said opinion.

For example, many creationists say that the vast majority of scientists are naturalists (the philosophical view that everything can be explained by natural and physical causes) and that naturalists refuse to even consider any alternatives. In other words, because the majority of scientists are naturalists, they must reject even the possibility of supernatural phenomena, out of prejudiced principle.

There probably are some scientists who hold such a strong opinion, ie. that they must reject any supernatural explanations without any consideration or rationale, purely out of principle. However, these are a minority. For the majority of scientists and skeptics naturalism is not a driving principle, but simply a consequence of what they know. In other words, the creationists reverse the cause-and-effect: It's not naturalism that "forces" the scientists to automatically reject non-natural explanations. Rather, they are naturalists because of what they know about the world. And they do not reject supernatural explanations out of stubborness and without even wanting to hear any arguments.

Another example is that some apologists claim that in the modern world "truth" is by far no longer appreciated, and there's a prevalent view that "truth" is subjective and dependent on the person. What's true for one person may not be for another, and it depends on the world view.

This is also a minority view, expanded by apologists to allegedly be a majority one. This may be so mainly for some new-age hippies, but the vast majority of people, especially those with any kind of scientific education, do not hold any such view. The truths about this universe are what they are, and it's not up to anybody's opinion.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"Atheism cannot be true because..."

Apologists and creationists (what's the difference? I may write another blog post about my views on that some day) really love to give long lists of atheist "claims." Atheists claim this, atheists claim that...

This whole concept that atheism is some kind of world view with a well-defined set of dogmas, beliefs and assertions (that most atheists agree upon) is extremely common, and extremely wrong.

Atheism does not claim that "the universe appeared from nothing" or that "life created itself" or that "we are just the product of random chance" or anything like that. As I have been repeating over and over, theism vs. atheism deals with one question, and one question only: Do you believe in the existence of gods? If you do, then you are a theist, if you don't then you are an atheist. Everything else is completely irrelevant. (It is, in fact, completely possible to be a theist, ie. believe in the existence of a god, and still believe that, for example, life appeared on its own, evolved to its current state by natural laws only, and even that the universe was not created nor fine-tuned by any intelligence. Theism and atheism do not deal with those things at all.)

Another thing that apologists and creationists love to say is that atheism leads to lack of any kind of moral principles. (This argument from morality seems to be almost completely confined to the United States, as it's a very rare argument presented in Europe and other parts of the world. Or should I more accurately say, used to be confined there, because nowadays European creationists are being poisoned by their American counterparts at an increasing rate, and are starting to repeat those arguments in Europe, where it makes even less sense than in America, given that something like 90% of European citizens are secular, and chaos has not ensued.)

I find the moral argument strange not only because it's so obviously false, but also because it seems to be saying that it doesn't really matter what's actually true, but that the only thing that matters is what the consequences of the belief system are. In other words, it doesn't really matter if a god really exists, what matters is that people believe it so that they won't go on a murdering and raping rampage.

This is the same with many of similar arguments. For example, many of them argue that teaching evolution leads to immorality and mass extermination of people. Apparently it doesn't matter whether evolution is true or not; what matters is what its consequences are. Apparently even if it were true, we should censor it so that people won't go in a murdering rampage.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Obsessing about Jesus' existence

Many apologists spend quite a lot of time trying to prove that Jesus really existed, that he wasn't just invented by the New Testament authors, that he wasn't just a fictional character or a myth. They do this as if proving Jesus' existence somehow demonstrated his divinity and the truth of what he said.

This is a very odd type of argumentation. Just put the same kind of argument in a different context to see how ridiculous it is. For example, imagine a Mormon trying to argue that Joseph Smith really was a true prophet of God, by proving that Joseph Smith really existed. I don't think anybody would be convinced that he was any kind of prophet of God by simply him existing.

Yet many apologists make a big deal about trying to prove that Jesus did really, truly exist.

The thing is, most of this is pretty useless. A skeptic doesn't need to argue against the existence of such a person. Ok, let's say that there existed a person named Jesus, and the New Testament are based on him. So what? We can perfectly well grant that argument. It still proves absolutely nothing.

This is nothing strange. There are plenty or examples of myths based on real people. For example captain Blackbeard was a real historical person, but he is surrounded by a lot of mythology that's probably not true. The list of such persons would be quite extensive. Why would Jesus, if he really existed, by any different? Existence in itself demonstrates little, so there's little point in spending so much effort in trying to prove that.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Attesting the veracity of historical writings

There's a tactic sometimes used by apologists to claim that some religious text is believable, and it's if the text in some parts describes the central character, who is otherwise revered, as making mistakes or somehow flawed, or shows weakness.

They reason that if the writer were just inventing the story of a religious figure, who should be revered as a prophet of God, or even God himself, surely they wouldn't attribute any fault, mistake or weakness to this person. That such descriptions attest to the veracity and believability of the narrative, ie. that it's describing real events rather than fictional ones.

This kind of reasoning has one big flaw: It assumes that writers in antiquity were unable to come up with fictional stories where the characters are described in a realistic way, even if those characters are supposed to be heroes to be revered.

This highly underestimates the literary capabilities of people in the past. Even to the point, I would say, of being outright insulting.

Talented writers were not stupid even millenia ago. They knew how to write, they knew how to appeal to the reader. They knew how to give credibility to their characters.

It seems that the thought doesn't occur to these apologists that, perhaps, the author deliberately describes the fictional character as flawed precisely for the purpose of making the story more believable and engaging. In other words, perhaps the author did have some genre savviness, and was talented at storytelling.

Intelligent writing is not a phenomenon exclusive to modern times. People have been quite clever for millenia.

(Another quite real possibility is that the author simply didn't think of attributing flaws of weaknesses to the main character as something to be avoided, but just as part of normal storytelling.)

Neil deGrasse Tyson and agnosticism

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the living people in this world that I admire the most. He's a brilliant astrophysicist, he is extremely intelligent, sharp and eloquent, and who can express himself incredibly clearly and understandably, yet never sounding patronizing (ie. like he's "dumbing down" what he's trying to say in order to make more common people understand.) He knows how to speak, he has an amazingly good ability to popularize science, and he always has excellent arguments.

There is only one thing that I have to criticize him for. It's nothing of much importance, but it still bothers me a bit. And it's his stance on atheism vs. agnosticism (and whether he considers himself one or the other.)

From what he has spoken on the subject, I'm completely certain that he knows perfectly well what the accurate meanings of the terms "atheism" and "agnosticism" are (and it would be pretty presumptuous from me if I were to claim otherwise.) However, regardless of this, he still willingly chooses to use them in the incorrect manner, seemingly just to avoid controversy.

To clarify, and make sure that there's no misunderstanding: The popular view among many people (especially theists) is that there's a range of world views with respect to believing in God. On one extreme we have theism, on the other we have atheism, and right in the middle we have agnosticism. It is also a popularly held view that both theism and atheism are world views with their own dogmas and ideologies. Agnostics are like those who don't care or don't want to take a stance on either side.

This, however, is completely wrong. Theism vs. atheism is a true dichotomy: You are either a theist or you are not. If you are not a theist, then you are an atheist by definition. Gnosticism and agnosticism describe a completely different category of philosophy, namely that of views about knowledge. A gnostic is someone who is certain that knowledge is possible, eg. on the existence of gods, while an agnostic is one who either denies having exact knowledge on the subject, or even claims that certain knowledge is not even possible. Gnosticism/agnosticism are in no way mutually exclusive with theism/atheism. All four combinations of them are perfectly possible positions. Moreover, what's popularly called "agnostics" are by definition atheists. Saying "I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic" is like saying "I'm not a human, I'm a man." It makes no sense.

Also, there is no "atheist dogma." Atheism is a personal stance on the existence of gods, nothing more. If you don't believe in their existence, you are an atheist by definition. It doesn't matter what other world views you might have. You may be a Buddhist or a Raelian if you want, but if you don't believe in the existence of gods, you are also an atheist. That's the very definition.

As said, I'm convinced that Mr. Tyson knows all this perfectly well. However, he still chooses to ignore it, and use the popular, mistaken meanings. He has explicitly said that he wants to distance himself from the "atheist community" because he doesn't think like them (in a context where he means that he doesn't want to fight for the word "God" to be removed from dollar bills and so on.)

It just sounds to me like he wants to avoid describing himself as "atheist" and instead uses "agnostic" for the sole reason that the latter causes less controversy among the general populace than the former. It doesn't matter what those words really mean, what matters is the impression they give.

I could perhaps understand this if it weren't for the fact that in most other topics Mr. Tyson has no qualms in being as controversial as it gets. For example, he has given excellent lectures on the "god of the gaps" argument, he has no qualms in talking against religious nonsense, and so on. In other words, he doesn't seem to worry if he's displeasing religious people in other subjects, except this particular subject of terminology, which I find strangely inconsistent.

If he really wanted to avoid controversy and upsetting people, I don't think he would be attacking the god of the gaps and other similar arguments, and giving lectures against intelligent design and religion. I'm really glad he does, but I just find it a bit inconsistent.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Creationists are getting desperate

In antiquity the world seemed extremely vast and mysterious. The vast majority of even educated people had only a very limited understanding of their surroundings. Most of what they knew about the world fell under a distance of a few thousands of kilometers at most. Vast seas, mountain ranges, deserts and other insurpassable obstacles both limited exploration and caused the rest of the world to be full of mysteries.

It's no wonder that these gaps in knowledge were promptly filled with fantastic stories of imaginary creatures and godlike beings. Gods were said to live in unreachable mountaintops, under the sea, beyond oceans, and beyond the clouds in the sky.

As human technology progressed over the millenia, we got to explore those previously unreachable places. We reached all mountaintops, we navigated to the other side of the vast ocean, we dove deep under the sea, and we flew high above the clouds. And there were no gods. (There were some fantastic creatures sometimes, but they quickly became rather mundane after discovery.)

Thus the gods receded from us to even farther and more unreachable places. When the whole world had been explored and no gods were found, the gods receded to space.

Then we examined space outside the Earth with better and better instrumentation, and we even sent telescopes to space to see better.

And no gods were found.

Thus the gods receded even more. Now they are outside of this universe, or in other dimensions, or other completely unreachable places (that might not in fact exist.)

In the same way the role of gods in the working of the universe has changed over time. In primitive times gods caused fires, thunderstorms, floods and earthquakes. Then we studied those phenomena and discovered that actually they work by entirely natural means. No godly intervention is necessary.

Then perhaps our immediate surroundings in this planet work by entirely natural means, but surely the rest of space requires divine intervention? Even Isaac Newton, when he failed to understand how the solar system can be stable, attributed it to divine intervention.

Then we studied this further and discovered that it works by entirely natural means. No gods are necessary to explain it.

Ok, planets and rocks are simple objects. But what about life? Surely life couldn't have appeared by these same natural mechanisms that make planets orbit our Sun? Surely the intricacies of living organisms is way too complex to be able to work via natural laws only?

And we studied life, and we discovered how it works, and that no divine intervention is necessary. We understand how living organisms function, and we understand where they come from.

Gods are receding very fast from us, to unreachable places. In the case of life, they are receding to the past. Surely even if life can be explained now, that doesn't mean that the origin of life billions of years ago can be explained by natural means?

Gods always go farther and farther from us. To the outside of our universe, to another dimensions, billions of years to the past... always somewhere that's very difficult for us to observe and examine.

And as science keeps progressing and progressing, it keeps pushing the gods farther and farther. We are starting to slowly get a grasp of how the universe may have formed, we are slowly getting a grasp of how life formed from non-life, we are slowly starting to understand better and better what happened in the distant past and why, we are starting to understand how the universe works from the extremely little to the humongously large.

As time passes, creationists seem to be getting more and more desperate. Decades ago almost nobody cared much about creationism, not even creationists themselves, save for a few exceptions. In recent times creationists are getting scared because of the trend of science pushing their gods away, and are counter-attacking. Science was once just shrugged away, just a curiosity. Now it's something scary, and must be attacked. If nothing else helps, it must be attacked via legislature, censorship and propaganda. Science must not be allowed to push the gods even further away from us than they already are.

Some try to hijack science. They try to reverse the reasons of why science has progressed so much and make the bold claim that religion is precisely the reason for scientific progress, and that it's "evolutionism" that has impeded it, completely reversing the actual events. Apparently, since science is too valuable to be completely shut off, the next best thing is to try to hijack it and convert it to creationism. Maybe that way it will stop pushing the gods away.

I fear that as science progresses, it's only going to get worse.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

12 steps to demonstrate Christianity as true

In the introduction of the book I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, authors Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek give a 12-step summary of how they demonstrate that there is credible evidence for the theistic god described in the Bible. These are the most typical apologetic arguments, and there are lots and lots of extensive refutations for them out there, but I thought I'd write briefly, equally as a kind of summary, why the arguments are flawed.

The twelve arguments are:
1. Truth about reality is knowable.
 This sounds more like an assumption, not an argument, but whatever.
2. The opposite of true is false.
A tautology is not an argument. It's a tautology.
3. It is true that the theistic God exists, as evidenced by
a. the beginning of the universe
The beginning of the universe is an unknown, and arguing for the existence of any god, much less a theistic one, from an unknown is just a blatant argument from ignorance.

Moreover, even if the beginning of the universe were caused by some form of god, that doesn't mean said god still exists, or that there was only one.
b. the design of the universe
The argument from design makes very spurious and unjustified assumptions about the alleged "design" of the universe (there are very good scientific reasons to believe that the universe is not designed at all, so simply assuming that it was is unjustified.) And again, even if it were purposefully designed, that doesn't tell us whether a god still exists, there was only one, or even if it was theistic.
c. the design of life
Same as above. Completely unjustified assumption, there are very good scientific reasons to believe that there is no design, and even if there were, it tells nothing about what possibly designed it or if it even exists anymore. Moreover, even if life were designed, there's no indication that it was a god that did it.
d. the moral law
Unjustified assumption that there is a "moral law" outside of what humans as a society has come up with. Also, even if there existed such a thing, there's nothing to indicate that whatever came up with it is actually any kind of god, or is what caused this universe to exist.
4. If God exists, then miracles are possible.
This is just outright faulty logic. Even if a god did exist, the possibility of miracles is in no way an automatic consequence of that.
5. Miracles can be used to confirm a message from God.
Again, completely faulty logic. Even if miracles did exist, we don't know what causes them. A connection to a "god" is completely unjustified. (Also, even if they were caused by a god, there's nothing that would indicate that this god created the universe or us, or if there was a creator god, that it's the same god.)
6. The New Testament is historically reliable, as evidenced by
a. early testimony
b. eyewitness testimony
c. authentic testimony
d. eyewitnesses who were not deceived
Eyewitness testimony is anything but reliable, and there's ample empirical, testable evidence for this. Claiming that something is reliable because of eyewitness testimony is one of the worst argumentative mistakes that one could ever make.

And this is assuming that such eyewitnesses actually existed. In reality, the very existence of the vast majority of those eyewitnesses is a claim made by the New Testament itself, making this a blatant circular argument. ("The New Testament is reliable because there were eyewitnesses. There were eyewitnesses because the New Testament says there were.") It is perfectly possible (and even probable) that the authors of the New Testament made things up.
7. The New Testament says Jesus claimed to be God.
This goes even further in the argumentative fallacy. The reliability of the New Testament can most certainly not be attested by how many eyewitnesses the New Testament itself claims there to have been. Moreover, even if there had been eyewitnesses, eyewitness testimony is unreliable in itself. And moreover, even if the testimony itself were reliable, that gives credence to only some parts of the New Testament. There may be some parts that really happened, while others are embellishments by the authors (if not outright fabrications.) There's absolutely nothing that would corroborate the claim that there indeed was a person in those times who claimed to be God, or that there was only one such person, or if any of these hypothetical people are actually the "Jesus" described in the story. (It's, for example, possible that the "Jesus" in the story is an amalgamation of several people, assuming he's not just outright fiction.)
8. Jesus' claim to be God was miraculously confirmed by
a. fulfillment of prophecy
b. sinless life and miraculous deeds
c. prediction and accomplishment of resurrection
I don't think it's necessary to repeat one more time what I have already written above. In addition to that, there's yet another problem with this argument: Let's assume for a moment, for the sake of argument, that all those events did indeed happen. On what basis were they caused by Jesus being God? Even if they did happen, we don't know how these things were achieved. We cannot jump from an unknown to a claim of godhood, or even to the existence of a god.
9. Therefore, Jesus is God.
Fallacious logic.
10. Whatever Jesus (who is God) teaches is true.
More fallacious logic. Even if Jesus had existed, and even if he where a god, it doesn't somehow automatically follow that what he taught is true. (Even if a god existed, there's nothing that would stop him from lying to us.) This is just faulty reasoning.
11. Jesus taught that the Bible is the word of God.
This is actually untrue even within the context of the Bible itself (making this argument quite astonishing, I must say.) What we know as "Bible" was not created but hundreds of years after his death (assuming he even existed) by the Roman church, and there is no mention of "Bible" in the Bible. Even the books of the New Testament were written long after Jesus' death, and this is something that even the most conservative Bible scholars agree with.

But even if there were such a passage, there's nothing that would indicate it to be factual. It would, once again, be circular logic: The Bible is true because the Bible says it's true.
12. Therefore, it is true that the Bible is the Word of God (and anything opposed to it is false.)
By this point it shouldn't be necessary to repeat how many fallacies must be committed to arrive at this conclusion.

God exists = there is life after death?

Many apologists argue that without God there is no purpose to life, no meaning, no higher goals, and existence is meaningless and completely moot.

One question that this should raise but seldom does (even among skeptics) is why exactly would the mere existence of a god give life any "higher" meaning and purpose. What exactly is the connection between "a god exists" and "there is a higher purpose to life"?

What really is happening here is that these apologists are assuming that if there is a god, then there is also life after death (and it matters what we do while we still live, as it affects what happens to us after death.) But why exactly are they making this assumption?

After all, it could be perfectly possible for a god to exist, even one that did create this universe and knows about us and watches us all the time, and there not being any kind of afterlife. It is perfectly possible for there to be a personal god, and death being an absolute end of consciousness. It is perfectly possible for such a god to exist and for our life to be "completely meaningless" (in the sense that these apologists mean it) regardless.

In fact one could actually argue the exact opposite: If there is an afterlife, that makes our earthly lives meaningless, but if there is none, then that makes our earthly lives the most important thing that we have, something that should be cherished and appreciated while we have it.

Pick-and-choose commandments

It's a quite well-known fact that Christians, especially those who claim to adhere strictly to everything in the Bible, who consider it the highest moral standard in existence, practice pick-and-choose morality. They will adhere to some commandments while completely ignoring others, even though there's absolutely nothing in the text that would justify this.

Let's take a couple of examples. For instance, the vast majority of such Christians just love this one, in Leviticus 18:
Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.
Oh, how they love to hate, and how they love this particular passage, and how they love to try to impose this on others. But let's turn to the next chapter, and take another passage from there:
Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.
Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.
Not a single Christian in existence cares about this passage. No Christian in existence is speaking out loudly against agricultural or fashion practices, claiming how they are immoral and against God's law, and rallying for law changes that would make them illegal. Moreover, most Christians don't follow these commandments themselves. Even if they know this particular passage, they simply don't care.

And it's not like these are two different categories of commandments. It's not like the text says from the first something like it being universal and extremely important, and from the latter that it's just some friendly advice that you might want to follow if you like.

In fact, both chapters start with the same words: "The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them." There is no difference in context or tone, it's all part of the same speech, and there are no alleviating words or degrees of severity mentioned. There's absolutely nothing in the text to justify strictly adhering to one commandment but basically ignoring the other.

This is what we commonly call hypocrisy.