Friday, July 26, 2013

"What do you believe in?"

There's a question that some believers, apologists and the proponents of some kind of New Age movement present to a skeptic that can catch him or her by surprise: "What do you believe in?"

This is such a loaded question that it could even be considered a trick question. A question perfectly crafted to trick the skeptic into giving a rushed answer that's easy to attack and belittle. If they answer something like "I don't believe anything" they will sound depressed and anti-social, which is precisely one of the responses the believer is hoping for. If you try to alleviate it with something like "I try to not just believe in things" they will attack with the old tired "so you do believe in something." Also an answer like "I don't know" will be taken as admitting defeat.

An experienced skeptic should be prepared for this exact question, because it comes up so often, yet surprisingly few skeptics are really prepared for it. The answer of an unsuspecting skeptic is way too easy to make into a straw man that's easy to attack.

This is an answer that I could give to that question.

Well, that's a rather philosophical question, isn't it? If you want a philosophical answer, then I would say that I believe that most of what I perceive with my senses corresponds to reality, in other words, things that really exist, independent of my thoughts. And of course I don't mean that all of my perceptions correspond to reality. However, I believe that most of them do.

In this case I am using the word "believe" in the sense of making an assumption, something that I just have to take for granted without further justification. Another thing that I just have to believe is that it's possible to discern what's part of reality and what isn't, by using my senses and rational thinking. These are about the only things that I believe in such manner, or at least I try to.

One way to attest the veracity of something with a very high degree of certainty is if it behaves in a consistent manner, and behaves in the same way for everybody and everything. Real things tend to behave extremely consistently, and do so for everybody and everything, while imaginary things don't. And by "everything" I mean, for example, measurement devices.

In other words, the only thing that I just have to trust is that my senses can perceive, for example, the readings of a measurement device correctly. Beyond that, I try to believe (ie. just outright take things for granted) as little as possible.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Some creationists seem to be strangely infatuated with the story of the biblical flood. (Among the most known ones are Ian Juby and John Pendleton, among many others.)

Their obsession with the flood story goes beyond just believing it to be true. According to them, almost everything was apparently created by the flood. The Grand Canyon? The flood, of course. Fossils? The flood. Mosquitos trapped in amber? Flood. Dinosaur footprints? They were running from the flood, and the flood preserved the footprints. Some dinosaur species laying eggs in rows? The flood caused that. A handprint that appears to be human? Yes, also the flood.

I'm not exaggerating the slightest bit here. These are exactly the things they are claiming. Yes, including the thing about a dinosaur species laying eggs in rows because of the flood.

I find this infatuation with the flood story quite amusing, really. It's like a flood mania. Basically everything that's old was created by the flood.

In fact, it seems like the flood is more a god to them than the Christian god himself.

Misguided proofs of the veracity of the New Testament

Many big-name apologists attempt to demonstrate the historical accuracy of the New Testament (up to the point of claiming that every single thing described there is a completely accurate depiction of real events) by using techniques that might superficially resemble academically sound approaches, but are often outright ridiculous.

For example, miles and miles of text has been written trying to demonstrate how the New Testament writings that we have today are exactly the same as the original ones that were written. While there are very good reasons to believe that at least some parts of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, have been added later, this is nevertheless a completely inconsequential argument. It doesn't matter if the text is the unmodified original one. That doesn't give any credence to the veracity of what the text is actually saying. This is like arguing that Homer's Iliad depicts true events if we can demonstrate that the text we have today is the same as the original.

Another argument that these apologists try to hammer in is the claim that the text was written either by direct eyewitnesses or by people who had contact with direct eyewitnesses. No serious historian scholar today, Christian or secular, has any doubt whatsoever that the Gospels were not written by their alleged authors. There's no doubt that they were written by unknown authors at least half a century after the alleged events, and that they were most certainly not any kind of direct eyewitnesses of any such alleged events. There's also no doubt that the books of Luke and Matthew were inspired by, and variations of the book of Mark. Even many Christian scholars acknowledge this (even some of those who try adamantly to prove the veracity of the text as historical fact.) Nevertheless, this is also an inconsequential argument: Even if the Gospels had been written by eyewitnesses of a person who was the basis of the character of Jesus, there's absolutely nothing that would have stopped them from adding their own embellishments. (There are many known instances of exactly this kind of thing from even recent history, so it's in no way an inconceivable thing.)

One of the most ridiculous arguments that is presented in complete seriousness is the alleged vast amount of eyewitnesses to all of the events depicted in the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. This is a ridiculous argument because the only source we have for the existence of these eyewitnesses is the New Testament itself. In other words, this is a circular argument: Trying to prove the New Testament as accurate using the New Testament itself. Trying to claim that it's accurate because of the vast amount of eyewitnesses, and the existence of said eyewitnesses is true because the New Testament says they existed. (And this isn't even going into the fact that even today it's easy to find thousands of alleged "eyewitnesses" to events that have demonstrably not happened. Group psychology can be a very strong phenomenon.)

One of the most fallacious arguments is trying to prove the historical accuracy of the New Testament by pointing out that some of its depictions are known to have happened with almost complete certainty (such as certain rulers having really existed.) This commits the fallacy of thinking that if some events are depicted accurately, that gives credence to the claim that all of the events described are true also. This is a ridiculous idea. It's like saying that since Homer's Iliad describes real cities, all of its events are therefore historically accurate.

The major problem with that is that apologists spend tons and tons of resources to try to prove mundane details about the Gospels as accurate, when those are mostly inconsequential and are not the things that skeptics have problems with. Whether this or that city really existed, or whether this or that person really existed doesn't really matter. Those things in no way attest to the veracity of the extraordinary claims made in the text. It's perfectly possible to write a fictional narrative to happen in real settings. We do this all the time.

Extra-biblical sources are also always brought up. This is highly deceptive because every single extra-biblical source that we know exists only mentions the existence of Christians, and none of them describe the events depicted in the Gospels. Nobody doubts that Christians existed in the first century; that's not the question. These extra-biblical sources are a very good argument for this. However, apologists are trying to go much further than that.

Perhaps the most ridiculous argument that apologists bring up completely seriously is the "empty tomb" argument. They say that because Jesus' tomb was demonstrably empty, that proves that Jesus rose from the dead. Yet the only source we have that such a tomb even existed is the very document that they are trying to prove as true. Again, this is a completely circular argument.

Apologists will also spent miles and miles of text to fight against alternative explanations for the empty tomb, as if that had any relevance whatsoever. They can't even establish in any credible way that there was any such tomb to begin with. (They will once again resort to the eyewitnesses argument, which is once again a circular argument.)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Lying for Jesus, part 2

Ian Juby is a young-earth creationists I have not mentioned previously in this blog. He is somewhat of a celebrity, especially on YouTube, and he's especially infamous for the blatant lies and distortions about science and evolution.

There would be hundreds and hundreds of examples of his lies, but I thought I would mention one in which he resorts to quite blatant quote mining.

In one of his videos he quotes Dr. Louis Jacobs, a doctor of paleontology, and his book Quest for the African Dinosaur like this:
"co-occurrence of men and dinosaurs ... would dispel an earth with vast antiquity. The entire history of creation, including the day of rest, could be accommodated in the seven biblical days of the Genesis myth. Evolution would be vanquished."
Jacobs seems to be making an admission here that humans living contemporaneously with dinosaurs would confirm the Genesis story of creation.

However, attentive viewers should become suspicious when they notice that this is a very partial quote: It starts with a lowercase letter (indicating that it's not, in fact, a full sentence) and it has an ellipsis, indicating that something has been left out. While one could commend Juby for this kind of academic honesty (ie. he didn't technically try to hide the fact that this is only a partial quote), it's still extremely dishonest: When quoting, parts should be left out for the sake of brevity only when doing so does not alter the meaning of what is being said. If leaving parts out changes the meaning or the spirit of what was said, that's extremely dishonest, especially when done to drive an specific agenda.

When we see the full paragraph, the meaning of the original text is quite different:
"There is a very simple reason why creationists cling to the Glen Rose footprints and insist on the co-occurrence of men and dinosaurs: Such an association would dispel the necessity of an Earth with vast antiquity. The entire history of creation, including the day of rest, could be accommodated in the seven biblical days of the Genesis myth. Evolution would be vanquished."
What Jacobs is doing here is explaining why creationists are so eager to defend the Glen Rose footprints, even though they are easily demonstrated as fakes: Because they would provide an argument to defend the biblical stories. Jacobs is not admitting that the biblical stories would become believable if men co-existed with dinosaurs; rather, he's explaining why creationists defend the idea, ie. what they think would be the consequence of that.

This becomes even clearer in the broader context of the book, ie. the other paragraphs surrounding this one, and the rest of the book.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lying for Jesus

A student pastor named Aaron Buer has written a relatively infamous blog post about sex, and why it should be reserved for marriage. Among other things, he writes:
"I have never met anyone who is actually happy about having sex before they were married. All I’ve ever seen and heard is massive regret."
Many people started adding comments to the post telling about their their lives, and how they have not had any problems with premarital sex, with no regret.

What did this Christian pastor, who like other Christians should hold honesty and truth as one of the basic pillars of their faith, do with these comments? Did he perhaps edit the post or apologize?

No, he removed all those comments and disabled further comments. The blog post is still unmodified.

In other words, student pastor Aaron Buer is lying through his teeth: He is still claiming that he has never met anyone who wouldn't have regretted premarital sex, even though that's demonstrably untrue.

I find it amazing how so many Christians seem to so blatantly think that the end justifies the means (ie. going against one of their most basic core principles in order to promote their world view), yet still deny thinking like that, probably even to themselves.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The meaning of "faith"

One of the most common forms of playing with words, committing a fallacy of equivocation, is when creationists use the word "faith." They will argue that "scientists/evolutionists have faith too", trying to put every kind of "faith" at the same level, giving credence to all of them. (Basically, they want to lower science/evolution to the same philosophical level as creationism and theism. They want to give the impression that they are all valid choices that one could make.)

The word "faith" is an extremely loaded word, and mixing its different meanings up is extremely dishonest. The word can have many meanings, such as:
  1. Belief (without evidence): You simply believe in something (often the existence of something) for which there is no valid evidence and has not been demonstrated. God, UFOs, psychic powers, astrology... they all fall under this category.
  2. Trust (in a person): The confidence that a person (eg. a spouse) will not betray, harm or otherwise act in a hurting manner, or will always act with your best interest in mind.
  3. Confidence: Things that you are certain of based on evidence and experience, in other words, things that you don't question anymore because you have complete confidence that they work in a certain way or have certain characteristics.
  4. Induction: Closely related to confidence (if not even a subset of it.) This is when you can make predictions based on evidence and experience, and you can have extreme certainty that your prediction will be very close to correct. (For example, calculating how long it will take for a stone to fall from a certain altitude to the ground.)
Especially creationists want to collate all the different meanings of the word into one. The most egregious of them even want to equate the first meaning above with the second one (a common gimmick of eg. Ray Comfort.)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Does life have meaning and purpose?

Many Christians will argue that without God there is no meaning nor purpose to life. I think this is mostly a scare tactic for other believers, rather than it being even an attempt to convince non-believers. (It's a scare-tactic in the form of "if you ever stop believing, your life will stop having any meaning and purpose, you will become just an empty shell of your former self, and you will probably fall into depression, crime, drugs or worse, so don't even consider it!")

No skeptic/atheist has any problem in finding meaning and purpose to their and other people's lives (perhaps those with clinical depression notwithstanding, but that's a completely different reason.) Let me posit this reasoning in a slightly more philosophical manner than usual.

Ideas can be a very strong and influential phenomenon. Ideas can be "contagious", they can "live on" so to speak, by transferring from one person to another. Ideas can change lives, for better or for worse. Ideas can improve people's lives, advance our culture and understanding, drive progress. On the other side of the coin, ideas can delude people, drive them to believe and do foolish things, to behave in all kinds of irrational ways that can be even harmful both to themselves and those around them. Some of these ideas can be extremely persistent and effectively "refuse to die", no matter how hard killing them is attempted. These are often alluded to as "viruses of the mind." Many people say that, for example, religions are such viruses of the mind.

Comparing these strong and widespread ideas to viruses is quite fitting. Like viruses, also these ideas change over time and fight for survival. The strongest, most "contagious" ideas will override the weaker ones. Any changes to these ideas that make them even stronger are retained, while changes that make them weaker tend to be dropped off. This is natural selection in action, on the level of ideas.

People can produce and have effect on these ideas, both the good and the bad ones. A person's actions can affect other people, and the repercussions of these actions can last for much longer than that person's lifetime.

It is thus not at all inconsequential what we do with our lives. Our actions and our ideas can help people, or they can hurt people, and the effects can potentially last for surprisingly long times.

Thus we can clearly see that even a full-fledged atheist can have a clear and important goal and purpose to his or her life: To make the world a better place through their actions and ideas. To have their ideas matter.

It is often said that the deceased live on in the memories of their friends and relatives. This is more than just a poetic idea. This can be a real, concrete effect that truly affects people's lives, sometimes for very long time after death.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Bible vs. Euclid's Elements

Many apologists claim that the Bible contains many scientific insights that were clearly "divinely inspired", and this clearly shows its divine authorship. Yet when you look at these alleged "scientific" passages, they are always extremely vague and open to interpretation, usually requiring really wild stretching to fit them into some modern scientific fact. Also, none of these alleged "scientific insights" has ever helped science to progress and to make new discoveries and understand how the world really works.

Some apologists might argue that the poetic nature of those passages is simply because of the limited language of those times.

However, it's not like we don't have anything that we could compare to. Take for example Euclid's Elements, which is a series of books written in about 300 BC. Very much unlike these biblical passages, these books are stock full of clear, unambiguous and accurate definitions and mathematically correct postulations and proofs, all of which is written in an amazingly clear and understandable manner. More importantly, it's written in a manner that has actually helped science in its progress and its understanding. Most of what is written in Elements is as factual and accurate today as it was 2300 years ago, and is unambiguously so, with no need for wild interpretation. Quite clearly the author or authors knew exactly what they were writing.

This is a wonderful demonstration that even with the written language of 2300 years ago it was perfectly possible to write in a clear and accurate manner, and to present scientific facts unambiguously and clearly, facts that have actually helped humanity.

The Bible fails miserably in all possible counts.

Lack of "attribution criticism"

I don't know if there exists an actual term for this, so I decided to term it "attribution criticism." Most people lack the capacity of doing it with certain things.

Many people automatically attribute certain phenomena to certain causes, with no corroborating evidence or testing. For example, alleged miracles are automatically attributed to a god. Even if miracles did happen, on what basis can they be attributed to a god?

Likewise, for instance, many believers will tell you things like "ask God to reveal himself to you, and he will." Again, even if you did that, and even if you strongly felt something, on what basis can you attribute that feeling to the doings of a god? Couldn't it just as well (and in fact more probably) be something a lot more mundane?

Most people simply lack a healthy attribution criticism. They seem incapable of asking themselves the question "how exactly do I know that this phenomenon comes from that alleged source, and not something else entirely?" The alternative source doesn't necessarily even have to be a natural cause. Even a hypothetical supernatural cause, but completely different from the alleged one, is always a possibility (no matter how unlikely, compared to a natural cause.)

At its core, spuriously attributing a phenomenon to a source without any kind of corroborating evidence is just an argument from ignorance.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Christians are not afraid to teach evolution?

It has become a relatively popular argument among creationists and the "intelligent design" movement (there's no difference, really) to claim that scientists want to brainwash children by teaching only evolution in schools and that they are afraid to teach any alternatives, like creationism. Likewise they say that Christians have no problem whatsoever nor are afraid to teach evolution alongside creationism. (For example, Ken Ham is one of the most prominent figures who likes to make this claim.)

However, like everything else, also this is a blatant lie (even though most of those creationists probably don't even realize it at a conscious level.)

In fact, these creationists are afraid to teach what the theory of evolution really says and what exactly its claims are. Creationists are not afraid to teach their own interpretation of evolution, which is most often just a caricature and a straw man. Or, at the very least, they have to make sure to append every single claim with a refutation that they have come up with (and of course ignoring the scientific responses to said refutation.) They can never teach evolutionary theory in an academically and scientifically accurate manner without bias, without their own distortions, caricatures or made-up objections that make sure to "poison the well" (as per the argumentative fallacy with that name.)

Creationists are very much afraid to teach evolution as it is.

Unlike they claim, scientists are not afraid of creationism or teaching it. It's just that its place is not in science class, because creationism is not science (no matter how much creationists claim it to be.) Creationism is not science because it's not testable, verifiable nor, most importantly, falsifiable. The theory of evolution is (again, no matter how much creationists claim that it isn't.) And not only is evolutionary theory testable and verifiable, there exists enormous amounts of experimental results that support it.

Evolutionary theory is the scientific consensus, and for very good reasons, and that's why it belongs to science class, and creationism doesn't. It's not a question of "being afraid."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jesus died for our sins?

If you would have to choose one single core tenet of Christianity, the most important one, Christians would often choose "Jesus died for our sins" (or something to that effect.)

My answer to that? "No, he didn't."

One of the basic tenets and core beliefs of Christianity is that Jesus is not dead, he is alive and well, and even has his own human body (albeit in some kind of ascended form.)

What exactly did Jesus give up in order to "save" us? What was the great loss? What was the great price that he had to pay? Absolutely nothing. And this is not me saying that. It's what Christianity itself teaches.

And that's not even going into the crazy reason why he had to suffer and die, which makes no sense whatsoever. Just the mere fact that Jesus did not, in fact, have to pay anything at all to "save" us is nonsensical in itself.

Some could argue that the suffering itself was the price. Even setting aside that it makes no sense, Jesus himself knew that the suffering would be temporary and that he would be just fine afterwards.

It would actually make more sense if Jesus had been sent to Hell for all eternity, to suffer for our sins there. Then it would have been a true loss: God would have lost his own son, God would have had to give up part of his very self, to suffer indescribable torment and agony for all eternity, with absolutely no possibility of return or end of the suffering.

The story and the theology would actually make more sense that way. That way there would at least be some rationale behind the sacrifice.

(Naturally this wouldn't solve any of the other problems that still exist with Christian theology, such as why did God create Hell in the first place, or why does he send his own creation there to suffer for eternity, and how he can be so cruel. But at least this way Christian theology would be at least slightly less nonsensical.)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Problems" of evolution, which aren't

Many creationists like to take some lesser-known or lesser-understood (by the general public) details, or recent discoveries, related to the theory of evolution, and spin them around and claim how they challenge the theory and are evidence against it, when in fact there's absolutely nothing problematic or controversial about them, they conform perfectly to the theory, and in some cases may even be the opposite, ie. they confirm the predictions of the theory. However, the creationists' typical target audience is too lazy or ignorant to check the facts for themselves, so they get the impression that new discoveries are indeed disputing the veracity of the theory.

One of the most commonly used ones is the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Most typically the creationists either don't understand what it's saying, or are deliberately distorting it into a straw man. Even in the few cases where the creationists' description is relatively accurate they still manage to make it sound like it disputes the evolutionary theory, when in fact it does nothing of the sort.

In short, what the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis is positing is that when the environment's selection pressure is very high (usually due to a radical change in the environment, either because a group of animals moved to another location, or because of changes in climate, or a natural disaster), it may cause species to evolve relatively rapidly (compared to their usual rate of evolution.) In other words, it may happen that changes that normally may take tens or hundreds of thousands of generations might take just a few hundreds, or such. This relatively rapid rate of evolution can cause apparent jumps in the fossil record (because, after all, only a very small portion of all living beings get ever fossilized; fossilization is a very rare event.)

There's absolutely nothing strange, outrageous or revolutionary about this hypothesis. It's completely in concordance with the theory of evolution, and it's backed up by tons of evidence. Evolutionary biologists have zero problems with this, much unlike creationists claim.

Another aspect of evolution that's sometimes used as a straw man by creationists is parallel evolution. What this means is that two completely distinct and unrelated species ("unrelated" meaning that their most recent common ancestor is extremely far removed in their evolutionary tree, possibly even millions of years) may independently evolve strikingly similar characteristics.

There's nothing strange about this either. To understand why it's not something unexpected, let's take a simple example: Two completely unrelated species of mammals may both evolve very thick fur if both live in a very cold environment. If their body shapes where somewhat similar to begin with, they may end up looking similar overall after they get thick fur, even though they do not have any kind of recent common ancestor. There's nothing strange in this, and this is completely in accordance with, and predicted by, the theory of evolution.

There are rare cases where two species independently evolve a similar-looking and quite peculiar and unique feature. This feature might be so unique and unusual that at first it might appear to be strange that they just happened to get it independently. However, like with the fur example, there usually is a reason behind it. This happens quite rarely and it may be unusual, but it's nothing strange nor does it challenge the theory of evolution in any way.

Although this example is from geology, not from biology, creationists always collate the two things. (After all, to a creationist "evolution" encompasses the vast majority of natural sciences. They can't even agree on a clear definition.) When looking at the so-called geologic column at some place where it's visible (eg. on canyon walls etc), oftentimes layers of entire eras are missing. Of course evolutionists take this to mean that the entire concept of "geologic column" is just a fraud.

To a geologist this isn't anything strange, and any competent geology textbook will explain this. The reason why some layers may be missing at some places is because of erosion. What happens is that the height of the ground is usually not static, but ground level may raise and lower over thousands and millions of years. When a large area of ground raises due to geological events, its top layers may start suffering from erosion (basically, wind and rainwater erode its top layers away.) When that area lowers again in the future, it may start once again accumulating new layers. This causes jumps in the layer structure, hence the "missing layers."

What creationists fail to mention is that the layers that are not missing are always found in the same relative order. They also fail to mention that usually if you traverse eg. the canyon further, there usually comes a point where the missing layers start appearing (and other layers may start disappearing.) This is all due to erosion during the geologic history of the place.

Of course creationists deliberately ignore and dismiss all this, because it doesn't suit their agenda.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The real reason behind street proselytizing

A friend told me recently that a friend of his (yeah, I know, "friend of a friend" stories are always a bit suspect, but in this case I have no reason to doubt the honesty of my friend) was, at one point in his life, a member of a Christian cult (one of the more secluded ones) in the United States for over 2 years.

Street proselytizing was a very common and frequent custom in this cult. Most of the members, including him, would go to streets to preach the Christian gospel to people. Often they would do this several times a week.

He said that during the 2 years that he kept doing this, not a single person converted nor joined their cult, not via his preaching or anybody else's that he saw. Not a single person.

He said that after he had left the cult, he came to the conclusion that the real reason for street preaching was not to convert people (they all knew quite well deep inside that it was mostly useless), but to strengthen their cult mentality: Being constantly rejected by outsiders, sometimes even with quite harsh words, strengthened their view that they were victims and martyrs, shunned and rejected by the sinful people of this world, and that only inside the cult they could feel welcome, friendly and warm. Outside there all you get is rejection and contempt, inside here you have friends and family, and a welcoming and understanding atmosphere.

When you think about it, this kind of psychological tactic to keep people in the cult is quite clever, yet quite evil at the same time.