Wednesday, August 22, 2007

In the face of disaster

Most atheists know, and loathe, the term "there are no atheists in foxholes." The theistic analysis is that when one is truly in the face of danger, the hate/mistrust/disdain that one has for religion such that they call themselves atheists loses its prevalence and the person becomes desparate enough to start praying/believing again. The atheistic analysis of the people making this theistic analysis is twofold: 1) they obviously don't understand true atheism, and 2) they have just accidentally explained that their own beliefs are due to a general feeling of desparation and lonliness. Fortunately many theists understand us better than that, but as with any demographic, there are those that are blinded by their own truthiness.

Recently, known atheist Richard Stallman was in Peru during a tragic earthquake. Stallman, known in some circles as simply rms, is a software developer and activist in the Free Software movement (pretty much the same as Open Source software, such that they are commonly combined in the acronym FOSS -- Free and Open Source Software). In fact, rms is considered the father of the movement, and remains one of its most influential characters. Simply put, he's a pretty big name among computer geeks like me. When it was discovered he survived the earthquake, he was asked to write about his experience.

The last paragraph is what caught my eye (enough that I paused my ongoing insane work schedule to write this!).
I read that a church collapsed on worshipers during mass; later I heard that the
priest had been rescued. Believers surely attributed the rescue to the good will
of a benevolent deity. They probably did not attribute the collapse to the ill
will of an evil deity, but it would be equally logical. In the 18th century, an
earthquake destroyed a cathedral in Lisbon, killing thousands of believers. Many
in Europe began to doubt religion as a result.

What a well-aimed shot at religion! These tragedies are typically accompanied by even doses of "Thank God we survived!" and "How mysterious are the ways of God!" that it's good to see a rational point.

But even more importatly, it was from a survivor of the event itself. One that did not suffer the foxhole-conversion predicted by so many theists.

Thank reason for that!

Monday, July 16, 2007

How do you explain...this?

I'm a bit late jumping on this story, so I'm betting most of you have already heard about this. But it's just too... juicy. A door-to-door salesman in Florida was struck by lightning from a cloudless sky, nearly killing him. Paramedics found him not breathing, and without a pulse, but were able to revive him. Or at least, somewhat. The man is currently (as of about a week ago at least) in a coma and recovering. Hopefully he will make a full recovery, and finish raising money for his religious education, because I'm sure he's got some big questions right now.

Because, see, did I forget to mention? He was selling religious books at the time he was struck by lightning. Oh, the irony!

First, yes sometimes lightning does strike from cloudless skies. This isn't a divine miracle, but rather a natural event known as "positive lightning" that is understood scientifically. But if you believe in an active, personal God, then everything is caused by God, right? So what did this poor man do wrong? Was God afraid of him making it to divinity school?

But wait, he was revived. So even though God was able to kill him for a moment, human beings were able to pull him back to life. (Uh oh! Sounds like humans are getting too big for their britches, God's gonna have to do another Tower-of-Babel smack-down!) Not only that, but if they used defibrilators, then the paramedics were really fighting fire with fire. So God throws down his electricity to kill a man, and Man volleys back with their electricity to revive him. Sounds like we're out-divine-ing God's bolts from heaven.

The leader of the man's religious group is quoted as saying, "It's difficult what happened, you know, but what can we do? Things happen in life, but we still believe in God." That's a pretty level-headed response, I suppose their particular group doesn't believe in the "everyone's a sinner, we've all got one foot in hell and the other in purgatory!" point of view that my wife and I are observing so much here in southwest Virginia. Aside from that last phrase "but we still believe in God" that would be pretty much what I would say in such a position.

But it's that "but we still believe in God" that really caught my eye. I wish I knew the full context, because this was probably a response to a question by an interviewer. But it's still interesting that he jumps right to that. Because, I would think, a bolt-from-the-blue event would actually lead many people to even stronger convictions.

But then again, I could just be wrong. One of the larger churches in the next town over from mine was once struck by lightning and burned (not completely, but there was a significant fire). Nobody seemed to think there was a particular message there. I wonder what the opinion would have been if, say, lighting had struck down and burned a Walmart? Or one of those evil evolution-teaching schools? The story might have sounded a little different.

update: A brand new story to add a little perspective to the above -- "close to 2,700 lightning strikes were reported in Washington and Oregon on Friday and early Saturday, sparking 212 fires." All in all, I find it easy to understand how a more primitive society would be quick to make assumptions on the divine nature of lightning. In this case, it must be all those heathens in Washington!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Gaming Religion, eh?

I'm no hard core gamer, but I do enjoy video games and can appreciate hard core gamers. I guess that's why one of my favorite web comics is Ctrl+Alt+Del, which stars a couple of hard core gamers. Ethan is a somewhat delusional gamer with an active fantasy life and occasional moments of brilliance (for instance, he built a sentient robot out of an XBox). Lucas is much saner, and while still an avid gamer is more sensible and usually bails his best friend out of the troubles he lands in. It's a funny, well-drawn, and wrll-written comic.

Sometimes, though, two aspects of my life will juxtapose for a while. And for the last couple of weeks, CAD and atheism have done just that, with a storyline full of criticism of the ironies of religion. I'll spare you a dry synopsis of the comic and just give you the ticket right into the beginning of the sequence.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Round Up

My schedule is finally getting back on track -- I might be able to go a night without working until 3 a.m. soon! It's been too long since I've posted though, so I want to do a round up of some good bits since my schedule has decimated my free time.

Religion, Politics, and the End of the World
A debate in four parts between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges. Unedited audio or edited video available here.

Creationism Bullsh!t
Atheist Perspective spotted the always-excellent Penn & Teller doing a Bullsh!t episode on Creationism. This pair is always worth watching and listening to!

The "Is God ... Great?" Debate
Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges, one on one. Zombie Time has a video and photo recap of the evening.
OK, let's be frank: Hitchens absolutely mopped the floor with Hedges. It was an embarrassment, really.

Hitchens tends to do that....

Anonymity: Shielf of the Atheist Blogger
vjack describes his struggle with anonymity -- one which I constantly reflect. The post got it's start with Hemant Mehta's criticism of anonymity. Which I also agree with. Hence my own struggle. Much of vjack's reasonings for maintaining anonymity are also my reasonings. In his #3 reason he states:
I believe that my ability to do my job would be jeopardized in many ways by professing my atheism. I would not be fired, but it would become much more difficult to do my job well. I would face increased alienation, a loss of credibility, greater hostility, etc. Because most of my co-workers and many more of my students are Southern Baptists who take their religion very seriously, I simply cannot expect that they would be tolerant of atheism.

This is my primary reason for anonymity -- except that since I work (more or less) as a freelancer, I have little faith (pun intented) that my clients would stick around. Some of my biggest clients are Nazarene. I consider it work politics.

Incidentally, why do you think it is that a large percentage of the atheist blogs that I read are written by teachers? I'm starting to feel left out....

The Sun Revolves Around the Earth
... or so 20% of Americans believe. This is a politically-minded post, but it says a lot about an atheist's position too.

For the democratic process to run properly it necessitates the voter to have some knowledge of what he is voting on. For it to work properly it requires voters to cast their votes based on an educated opinion.


There is a reason why people are fighting so hard to get creationism taught in the public schools along side evolution as a scientific alternative.Like I said, it hit me. And it hit me hard.Americans, on top of not having a clue what a cell is or what radiation is or even that the Earth revolves around the Sun are letting religious leaders dictate to them what to vote on issues that would take knowledge of basic scientific fundamentals, because I am assuming that they are assuming that since these religious leaders are supposedly moral and ethical “authorities” they should be qualified to figure out where we stand on these scientific issues, but who is to say that they even know these basic scientific concepts?

This speaks on many levels about how so many people are uneducated on what atheists even are, and why some people believe in creationism.

It's all about the easy answer. School tells them one thing. It's based on evidence. It makes you think. Some parts deal with math. Some even scarier parts deal with physics and chemistry and other sciences. There are a lot of unknowns. Then the church tells them another thing. It's simple and straightforward. You just have to believe a few things that are clearly stated. It's an absolute, too, if you have enough faith it will answer every single damn question you've got.

So if a person hasn't even been taught enough to know that the earth revolves around the sun, who do you think they're going to be more likely to believe? It's clear there is a bigger problem here, lying under the surface of religion.

Nice photo.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bumper Stickers, Squirrels, and the NY Times

I'm still trying to un-bury myself from the pile of work our move left me with, but there are a few things worth mentioning.

I saw an unfortunate bumper sticker the other day, on a car decorated with several dozen peace/love/etc. bumper stickers (on all sides). There are many really appalling bumper stickers, and I suppose as far as these things go it could have been a lot worse. What really stuck me about this one, though, was that the heart of the message was in the right place, it was just the reasoning that was flawed.

Don't take life too seriously. It's only temporary.

I agree with the concept of not taking life too seriously (emphasis on the 'too'). But calling life temporary implies, obviously, that there is something else beyond life that is the "real" life. Taken seriously or not, this denigrates the value, beauty, and preciousness of life.

While I don't think that life should be taken too seriously, I do not think it should be taken too cavalierly, either. This is it. This is your life. Don't waste it. It's all you've got! Do good things. Be remembered. Live on forever in the history books and in the memories of your friends and families. Don't be stupid. Don't do stupid things. Better yourself at every opportunity. But have fun while doing it.

Speaking of being a little too cavalier, here's a funny story. We have some new birdfeeders, put up recently after our move. I enjoy watching the birds while I work from my home office, and I keep a pair of binoculars and a bird guide on my desk. We've recently been having a squirrel problem, though -- specifically, he's climbing up and eating all of the bird food.

At first, all I had to do was bang on the glass of our patio-style door between the office and the front yard. Then I would have to open the door a tad and slam it shut. Then I would have to open the screen door. Then step outside and wave my arms. Then take a few steps towards the squirrel. He kept coming back. He finally got used to me trying to keep him away. He got bold.

Yesterday he was happily eating on the other side of the feeder, so all I could see was his tail hanging down. I walked outside. He peeked around the side of the bird feeder and took a look to make sure I was keeping my distance, but quickly resumed eating. I walk a few steps to one side so the bird feeder was more directly between us, and so that if he peeked around again I wouldn't be there anymore. Then I snuck towards the feeder.

I got close enough I could have grabbed his tail if I'd had gloves. I don't know if he really didn't hear me -- I was barefoot on grass -- or if he was just that bold. I guess he wasn't taking life seriously enough. He kept eating. I got my head really close to the bird feeder and peeked around and went "BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!" I was eye to eye with him. Not four inches away. He did a little squirrel version of clutching his heart and peed a little in his fur. Ok, not really, but his eyes just about popped out as he was tripping over his tail trying to get away. Oh, it was brilliant.

He's learned his lesson, though. He is much more content with eating off of the ground now. Although he does occassionally get on the feeder again, he won't eat on the far side of the feeder anymore, and if I step outside he stops everything and doesn't lose eye contact with me until he runs off or I leave.

One quick link before I get back to work -- the NY Times has filled their science page up today with only evolution-related stories. Good on them!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Prayer as a Weapon

In a recent post, vjack describes the act of schoolyard "prayer circles" and how they are used to attack non-fundie children.
The children start calling you names and hurling insults at you. If you happen to be Jewish, you will hear things that would make neo-Nazi's proud. You are a sinner. You are going to burn in a lake of fire. You will rot in hell. They form a circle around you, holding hands to make sure you can't easily escape. They tell you that the only way you can save yourself is to accept Jee-zuhs. They begin praying around you loudly to "save your soul."
I have never been a prayer circle victim, thank reason. My school was full of good ol' southern Baptists, but I doubt there were more than two or three really fundie families in the whole school.

Socially, what exactly are these prayer-circle attacks? Are they some kind of fundie-centric bullying? Some kind of misguided attempt at an intervention? I'm trying to figure out what the childrens' point is. Are they just trying to be mean? Are they trying to convert their target, as if to say, "Hey, all you have to do is say 'yes, I accept jesus' -- it doesn't matter if it's the truth or not -- and you can be mean to the next kid with us!" Does it matter?

Because deep down, all they are really doing is highlighting one of the great inconsistencies of religion -- specifically, of prayer. Theists, at least those that believe in an active, personal god, believe that if you pray to him/her, your prayers will be answered. They are quick to gloss over the 'unanswered' prayers, and point out the 'answered' ones, to maintain evidence that their god really has listened to them. In reality, the answered/unanswered ratio is exactly what you would expect from chance. If you pray for the sun to rise on time tomorrow morning, then your prayer will almost certainly be answered. If you pray for a second moon to appear in the sky tomorrow night, your prayer will almost certainly be ignored.

A good example of this, as noted in Dan Barker's wonderful song, "Nothing Fails Like Prayer," are those who pray for lottery winnings. If god answers prayers, and people pray to win the lottery, then why are the odds for winning the same as are predicted by statistics? A theist might reason that it is because everyone has prayed for their ticket to win, therefore everyone has equal odds for god to have chosen to answer their prayer. So why pray in the first place?

(I should also point out not everyone will have prayed to win, as there would be plenty of atheists and lazy theists with tickets. Prayer suggests a tendency for devout theists to win the lottery, but this is not the case.)

The use of prayer as a weapon in a good illustration of the paradox of conflicting prayers. Imagine two opponents, an attacker and a victim. Both religious. The attacker prays, "God, please help me smite this person!" and the victim prays, "God, save me from this person!" No matter the outcome, one prayer will be answered and one prayer won't be. The victim either gets away or he doesn't -- exactly what would happen without prayer.

So, again, what's the point? Emotionally, I believe it is similar to rooting for a sports team. As long as there are no bets going on, what do you gain from your team winning? You enjoy the victory vicariously, and get bragging rights over your friends and co-workers that rooted for the other team. Prayer offers exactly the same benefits. If your prayer is answered, you get a vicarious high from feeling "the touch of god" in your life. And you get to feel superior to non-believers and the un-saved. It is similar to people that keep rooting for a losing team, knowing that they're bound to win some day, people keep on praying, too, knowing that their prayer is bound to be "answered" some day.

I think this is why it is particularly satisfying for theists to bash non-theists. There is no conflicting prayer. It feels like a victory by default to them -- a sure win.

So, to answer my own question, I think it's just about the bullying. There is no attempt at conversion, because the goal has nothing to do with victim. Just like doing drugs isn't about what's best for the cocaine. The prayer circle attackers are using the victim to achieve an artificial high.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Biblical Truth, or a Propaganda Machine?

Well, it's been a long time since my last post. When I am extremely busy with work, I have to gradually cut out other free-time activities bit by bit. This week was trying to prepare an interactive CDROM for a client in time for a trade show today (just barely made it) and it didn't leave time for much else! It also didn't leave much time for reading all of my blogs, so aside from a few minutes here and there I've just been completely out of the loop. I'm sure PZ has made 800 posts since last I read....

One interesting post I did catch was vjack's article on biblical literalists. A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than 30% of the US population takes the bible literally. I would have liked to have known what percentage of those people have actually read the bible.

Since our recent move, my wife has tried a different church every Sunday, looking for the right one for her and the kids. So far, no luck. "They're all sinners!" she says, referring to a recent sermon that preached how everyone is a bad person and we all have a lot to ask forgiveness for. It was basically a group baptist confession session. Yuck. My wife thought it was YUCK too. Theist or not, if you're smart you know that even if you know people have occassionally doing bad things, it does no good to sit down together and moan about it. What's the point?
You've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don't mess with Mister In-Between

But what we thought was really horrifying was a service she told me about from a couple of weeks ago. (boy, it really has been a while since I've blogged) She described the children's sermon like this:
A women kneels down on the floor in the front, inviting all of the children to sit with her. When the children had assembled, she opened a newspaper. "Do you want to read the news?" she said. "Let's see what's happening. Do you want to her about all of the soldiers who were killed in the war?" The kids, confused, weren't sure whether to say yes or no. "How about this one -- a singer gets drunk, and crashes her car into a tree! Do you want to hear about that?" More confusion from the kids. It goes on for a little while, and finally ends with this gem, "Or how about this one -- a man rapes and kills his four-year-old daughter. How many of you are four?" She finally gets to her point, "This is all bad news, isn't it? That's why the bible is called The Good News."
And that was it. It sure is a good thing I wasn't there. I would have intervened long before the woman whipped out her punchline. That woman should be ashamed of herself.

Not to mention the hypocrisy! Has she even read the bible? The Old Testament? I'm still reading it myself, but off the top of my head:
  • every human and animal in the world, save for a few of each, is murdered by an angry and vindictive god
  • Noah gets drunk and naked, then curses his own lineage when one son sees him naked and has his kid tell him to get some clothes on
  • god toys around with Abraham, who was about to kill his only son at god's request
  • Lot protects two of his guests from the townsfolk, and offers his daughters as sex toys instead
  • Lot's daughters get Lot drunk and rape him
  • ten plagues, anyone? Despite the pharoah trying to let the Hebrews go seven times, god kept "hardening his heart" so he could do even more terrible things to the egyptians
  • Moses leads warriors into cities, and demanding that not only are the warriors killed, but also the elderly, the women, and the children
  • Joshua does the same, wiping out all of the men, women, and children of 31 cities
  • Someone is stoned to death for collecting firewood on a Sunday
  • Gideon kills a bunch of his friends because they guessed his riddle, then goes off on more killing rampages
  • One of Gideon's sons kills 68 of his brothers
  • Jephthah swears that if he wins a war, he will slaughter the first thing he sees at home as sacrifice -- which was his daughter
  • Another judge pulls a Lot and sends his concubine out to be ravaged by townsfolk, and when he finds her dead later he cuts her up into twelve pieces and sends them to the each part of the land
Gosh, sounds familiar! Soldiers killed in war? Check! People getting drunk and doing bad things? Check! Rape and murder? Check! (except in the bible it was the daughters that raped the father!) So how is the newspaper so bad compared to the bible?

Which brings me back to my question about the Gallup poll in vjack's article. Despite so many people believing the bible is the literal truth -- how many have actually read it? Here was a woman giving a sermon to other people, a position, one would assume, usually granted to people that are familiar with the material. Instead, it comes across more like war propaganda, especially when it is so obviously false.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Gloriously Huge Universe

Several years ago I was debating the existance of God in an online forum. The debate was pointless, as my opponent was quick to draw arbitrary "micro-evolution, not macro-evolution" lines and resort to the inerrancy of the bible to 'prove' his point of view. He was a young-earther, too. Even though the debate stagnated after a while, there was one topic I had delivered, about which I was never able to extract a response. I posted one picture, and he put a full stop on all efforts he had been making in that direction. It was a nice moment for me. What was the topic, and what was my response?

As I stated, my opponent was a young-earther. I asked how, then, were we able to see light from stars millions of light years away? Did he not believe in the speed of light? No, he responded, the speed of light was fine. But the methods used to measure the distances to the stars were 'unreliable,' and that they were in fact much closer than we had been led to believe. This was when I struck.

Then how, I asked, do you explain the Hubble Deep Field image? I included a link to the hi-res image, and pointed out that, save for a few foreground stars, every glob of light in that image represented an entire galaxy of stars. And, if they were all within 6000 light years of us, how could the individual stars in these galaxies exist, considering they must be much smaller than a star needs to be in order to maintain nuclear fusion, and how would it have enough gravity to withstand being blown up by the nuclear energy?

This was what I couldn't get a response to. There is just something very compelling about a good visual.

The original Hubble Deep Field image (hires version here) was a snapstop of a tiny piece of the sky, like looking through a tiny keyhole. If you were to look up at the night sky, the little window this was taken from would be about the size of a dime -- held 75 feet away. And it showed more than 1,500 entire galaxies. What is really incredible is that the entire universe is like this, in all directions.

The image at the right is a more recent image, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (breathtaking hires version here). This image was taken from a section of the sky about 1/10 the diameter of the moon, over an exposure lasting 1,000,000 seconds. It reveals more than 10,000 galaxies. Aside from the foreground stars, these are all entire galaxies with billions of stars each.

It should again be noted that this is typical throughout the sky. That means that, lurking behind the moon, is at least 1,000,000 entire galaxies. And the full moon only takes up about half of 1/1000th of 1% of the full sky (360 degrees, north and south hemisphere), or 1/200,000th of the sky. Which results in roughly 200,000,000,000 galaxies that would be, barring any obstruction, visible from the Hubble telescope at a similar acuity as the HUFD.

Folks, that's one big universe.

The next step is to try to picture how big a galaxy is. A new image from Hubble shows exactly that. It is the highest detailed image of galaxy M81 (Bode's Galaxy, about 12 million light years away, shown left) ever taken. Fabulous hires version here. Yes, every single little pinpoint of light is a star. In the center they are so dense and the galaxy is so thick that they cannot be distinguished from one another. I don't even have to calculate how many stars that is, you can just see for yourself. (I've heard that 150 billion stars is average for a galaxy)

Another neat demonstration of how big the universe is -- by showing how small we are, is here in a series of image. First, the earth compared to the other rocky planets (and Pluto). Then to the rest of the planets. Then to the sun. Then the sun is compared to other normal stars. And finally, to the very largest stars. Earth grows invisible very quickly.

I don't want to write a complete rehash of my last post on nature -- but doesn't it feel just wonderful seeing how big the universe is? How could anyone possibly believe they are "God's chosen people" after seeing how amazingly tiny we are?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Not in Kansas Anymore

For years it seems like much of the news about Intelligent Design was coming out of Kansas, especially since ID was kicked out of Dover. This is probably because I lived in Kansas at the time, but I've heard it mocked so many times I believe it is safe to say that Kansas had a national, if not international, reputation for being ID-friendly. But now the winds of change have arrived, and Dorothy and her little dog Toto have been picked up and dropped into Kentucky. And as with the travelers to Oz, what they found there was quite a different reality.

Yep, Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis are opening the Creation Museum to the public today. Or, as I've also heard it called, the Fred and Wilma Flintstone Memorial Museum. PZ has collected a good selection of quotes from various newspapers about the opening. Zachary Lynn got a sneap peek and posted his photographs of the museum in a guided online tour that's interesting to look through, if only to see the Robo-Adam and Robo-Eve. (does anyone else think that Eve looks a bit like Alanis Morissette?)

We've probably all heard stories about the museum by now, like images of a Tyrannasaurus Rex grazing in a meadow and eating leafy greens and opening coconuts with six-inch razor sharp teeth, but now there are pictures in the flesh -- and when I say in the 'flesh' I'm talking about the two skinned and bloody goats in a diorama about sacrifice. And Cain standing woefully over the inert Abel, lying bloody on the ground with a bashed in head. I think these gory shock-value images are only peppered here and there to make the 'science' seem more adult and less elementary-school level. In the same way that a producer might insert a few especially brutal or graphic scenes in order to bump a movie into an 'R' rating. Also in the same way that teenagers think that ridiculous amounts of cursing will somehow make them seem more grown up.

Fortunately there is a four-page primer by Lawrence Krauss called "Top 10 Reasons Why the Universe, the Sun, Earth, and Life are NOT 6000 years old". Something I find interesting -- and sad -- is that old-earth people calmly gather facts, data, and arguments that easily blow the young-earth view out of the water. They let the facts choose the truth. But the young-earthers simply make up stories that suit their beliefs, and let the belief choose the truth. I've read Genesis, and there was nothing in there about dinosaurs eating coconuts.

Maybe religious people would be easier to debate with if they actually knew more about their own religion! Stephen Prothero has a book called "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't" (A book that made my wish list on Amazon as soon as I heard about it.) Did you know that less than half of the people polled could identify Genesis as the first book in the bible? More than 10 percent think that Noah's wife as Joan of Arc. And evangelicals don't know a whole lot more about the bible than non-evangelicals. Right or wrong, spreading the word is the important part, eh?

I think that about sums of the Creation Museum, too. All $27 million dollars of it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Natural World

The long and tiring move is over, and we are finally getting settled in to our new house. It is a log house on two acres with a terrific view right out of the big glass doors to my home office area. We've traded the sounds of traffic and sirens to birds and cows. Indeed, while I frequently listened to music while working, lately I've been keeping the music off and just enjoying the birdsong. When we are out driving, it is not traffic we are weaving around, it is mountains. I can look up at night and see more than twenty stars. Thousands, on clear nights. Our house, at night, actually gets dark! There are no street lights outside the window, just moonlight. In short, we are living in nature, and nature is spectacular.

So why ... ruin it by making up stories about a creator that fiddled around and whipped up the whole thing in six days? That makes it sound so trivial. So mundane. So ... disenchanting. My nature was the product of several billion years of refinement. It has matured, like a fine wine. It is mysterious and wonderful because I don't assume that it happened for a reason, or at the hand of a master designer. Because I don't assume that human beings have lived on this planet but for a fraction of a percent of its existance.

I love driving in rural areas, especially ones that are new to me. I frequently get urges (so far unmet, but one of these days...) to stop the car and run up a hill to an isolated spot. I want to sit down right there, and wonder if any other human being had ever sat down right there before, or was I the first? And to think of all of the animals that had been right there, and what kind of lives had they lived, and sights they had seen. To think of all the strange plants and creatures that had been right there, but have long been extinct. Wouldn't the concept of somebody actually creating that spot ruin that feeling? Wouldn't the unconscionable brevity of the creation story of existence minimize the wonder of the ages past?

We are not the product of evolution, of course. Evolution doesn't work like that -- there is no destination. But we are undeniably part of the same wonderous device that is evolution, and therefore part of the same wonderous machine that is our universe. In the vast set of equations that are silently being perfomed every time two people fall in love, or whenever the weakest antelope falls prey to the lion, or when baby sea turtles fight their way across the beach, or as the tree with the strongest roots survives the storm, or when a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo...we are part of the system. What is more, we are only particularly special because we are aware of the system, and we are slightly more influential in the system than most of the other creatures on this planet. Which is to say, completely ineffective on a solar scale, much less universal.

In the immortal Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams (an atheist, thanks to Richard Dawkins) envisioned that the perfect punishment was to be given awareness of how small and insignificant one really was in the universe. I don't believe this would effect many atheists. Myself, I rather like feeling that I am only a tiny part of the universe, because it means there is so much else out there to learn. But for many theists, this might indeed be the perfect torture. After all, theist mythology was born from a world that was very small, from the point of view of its inhabitants, and it hasn't developed as much as it might have since then.

But as humanity and human knowledge has grown, so has our awareness of the world. Believing that the universe was created by one being, let alone within a week, and that all of the animals on the planet could co-exist, much less fit, on a boat for more than a year, is shrinking the amazing universe we live in to an unappreciably small existance. Would the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel be nearly as awe inspiring if it was painted on the head of a pin? No.

The only way to truly appreciate the grandeur and splendour of the universe is by not taking it for granted. By explaining away our existence in just a few of pages in Genesis, we are making up answers to questions that deserve a lot more attention. A lot more ... reverence.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The importance of a face

I've been extremely happy with the amount of atheistic video I've found online recently. In a recent post I commented on the very positive interview of Christopher Hitchens by Lou Dobbs, and YouTube now has another good Hitchens interview, with Anderson Cooper:

Another excellent Hitchens appearance is his debate with Al Sharpton. Sharpton and Hitchens are both wonderful speakers -- but it's interesting to me that Sharpton keeps modifying the definition of religion in order to support his points. His own view of religion might match exactly what he says, but he cannot claim that he represents all religion. It reminds me of the Kansas board of education that tried to redefine 'science' to allow for the teaching of ID.

Bligbi has also collected a good list of longer format videos, such as Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? and the recently viewed-in-america A Brief History of Disbelief. Thank you, Bligbi!

The importance of these videos cannot be understated. As I and other atheists frequently claim, misunderstanding is one of our greatest challenges. People are more likely to try to understand a person when they can see them face to face, rather than just read what they have written. It is easy to take a statement out of context, but not so easy in a video segment. The visual cues of a speakers face, inflection, gestures, etc. gives enough clues to get past trivial misunderstandings. A viewer can see the honesty, passion, and intelligence of a speaker. This opens the floodgates of empathy, and the easier for a viewer to understand the speaker by personally relating to individual statements. And through this, breaking down the misunderstandings that are causing atheists so much grief.

And finally, for a bit of fun:

You scored as Spiritual Atheist. Ah! Some of the coolest people in the world are Spiritual Atheists. Most of them weren't brought up in an organized religion and have very little baggage. They concentrate on making the world a better place and know that death is just another part of life. What comes after, comes after.

Spiritual Atheist


Scientific Atheist


Militant Atheist


Apathetic Atheist




Angry Atheist




What kind of atheist are you?
created with

Friday, May 11, 2007

Travel, Talk, and Holes in the Dike

Travel over the last couple of days has been lovely. None of us had ever seen the southwest, and we've been really enjoying ourselves -- despite the thermometer hitting 108 today. We drove from Kansas City, through Oklahoma, through the Texas panhandle, and into New Mexico on the first day. We stayed in a historic Route 66 motel and had a great time (other than my daughter doing a face-plant on the sidewalk, creating an unsightly set of scrapes and bruises on her face -- just in time for her flower-girl wedding photos!). The next day we finished the ride to Phoenix, and got to take a few side trips.

The first place we stopped at was the Petrified Forest national park and painted desert. We've also stopped at the Red Rocks state park in Sedona, AZ. Both places were well worth a little hike. We slung the kids on our backs and just had a great time. I sometimes feel guilty at how little of this fabulous planet I've seen. After this trip, I feel a bit better.

Another exciting advanced I've made on this trip is regarding religious discussion with my wife. The events I discussed in my last post were like the holes in the proverbial dike. I'm not letting the little Dutch boy stop it back up, though! I'm looking forward to seeing where this will lead.

My wife -- who nearly had enough world religion classes to have received a religion minor in college -- has a very spiritual approach to life. She's reading two books right now -- a [moderately] skeptical book on the existence of the afterlife and reincarnation (yay!), and a Sylvia Brown book (boo! -- but I would never discourage her from enjoying whatever she wants to, of course). And she is absolutely one of the most benign theists you can imagine. But she worries about my soul. She doesn't believe in hell, but she's concerned that when I die [and assuming there was a heaven] that I wouldn't accept it even in death.

This was a simple concern to alleviate, because my non-belief is based on lack of evidence, not rebellion or anger. I wondered how many rebellious or angry atheists she has known, to unknowingly consider me in that group? I think perhaps it is my use of the term 'atheist' instead of 'agnostic.' I think it is a good choice because, although I would accept incontrovertible evidence of god if I was given it, I find the odds of there being a supernatural deity so highly unlikely I feel that I am only an agnostic by slight technicality. On Dawkin's 7-point system, I am a strong 6.

Given this discussion, though, maybe the term 'atheist' is more misleading than I understood? Is it being read not as a belief, but as a position? From my perspective, this is something that I feel should be solved by educating those, like my wife, who do not understand that atheism is based on the principle of reason not denial. But how much weight should we give to our perspective in this matter? Shouldn't we be concerned about the perspective of the larger population? This is another time when I think a new term, like Bright, will do us all a lot of good. The biggest problem we face is misunderstanding. It doesn't have to be a fundamental misunderstanding like thinking that atheists worship the devil. It can sometimes be simply being unaware of where atheist stops and agnostic begins -- and where they overlap.

We also "talked shop" a bit, and discussed some more mundane topics. We discovered we both have a preference for the NSRV bible. I was able to recommend the ESV, and she was able to recommend the NIV. She helped clear up a few of the distinctions between different denominations that I'm still fuzzy on. It was a very productive talk, and although I felt fairly tense when we started I was considerably more comfortable by the end. I'm not sure how she felt about this -- but I am taking the fact that she initiated the most recent discussion (in a very conversation manner!) as a good sign.

Sometimes I feel a little silly for feeling like there is such a wall between us that talking about religion can be such a problem. But I've decided that it's mostly a matter of respect. We both respect each other's beliefs to the point that we are afraid of unintentionally hurting the other's feelings. I'm starting to learn more of her boundaries, and where I've inadvertently crossed them in the past. And I think she's starting to understand where I am on the atheism/agnosticism line. Progress all around.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Traveling, Coke Cans, and Sam Harris

I will be posting when I can over the next two weeks, but it will be very irregular. We'll be travelling all over the country -- a wedding in Phoenix, and then moving to Virginia. I'm really very excited about seeing the west, this will be my first time out that far.

Unfortunately, all of this travelling means that I will most likely be missing the PBS airing of A Brief History of Disbelief. The series will be shown in Virginia before we get there, and in Kansas City after we leave! I hear it's on YouTube also, so that looks like how I will watch it. I will also be missing the televisation of the Comfort/Cameron vs. the Rational Response Squad debate! Augh! I have no doubt that will find it's way on YouTube quickly, too. Here's a preview already:

(there is some language in the 'intro' to the piece, so be warned if you're playing this without headphones in a work environment!)

In the meantime, I've found two write-ups so far of the debate, one from a theist perspective and one from an atheist perspective. They both pretty much agreed that while the Rational Response Squad didn't prove things one way or the other, the Way of the Master team was almost too embarrasing to watch. This from Becky Garrison's article:

Even though the atheists failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that God could not have been the spark that set all of creation, they seem to have nailed this debate when Cameron pulled out the get-out-of-hell card. Simply put, this was “what you believe about God will determine where you spend eternity.” At this point, if I wasn’t covering this event, I would have crawled out of the church in shame.

And this from OsakaGuy on the board, who says Comfort sadly did not come onstage with a banana. Instead, he used a coke can to 'prove' that any design must have had a designer. Wait, that's the "scientific proof" he's been proclaiming? That just goes to show that Comfort has just as fuzzy a notion of what science really is as the Kansas board of education.

Who won the debate? I was under the impression that Ray and Kirk were not going to rely on their bible to prove their god exists scientifically. By that standard they both broke the rules by referring to the bible multiple times, and proved nothing with their argument from design, so they failed. If there were any rational fence sitters out there I would assume they must agree. As for the respective choirs on each side, I'm sure they both thought their side won completely.

I was worried when I first heard about this debate. I knew that Comfort and Cameron weren't smart enough to actually come up with something interesting, but I was worried about the way they would treat the Rational Response Squad. I remembered how Ellen Johnson couldn't get a word in edgewise here CNN appearance, and I was worried that a couple of smooth talking presenters would appear to have an upper hand in this format. I am completely unfamiliar with the RRS. Fortunately, it sounds like this worry was completely unfounded. Not only did the RRS hold up very well, but it sounds like it was moderated well, too.

If only we could get some more moderation on the web. A Load of Bright has stumbled on an out-of-context quote being attributed to Sam Harris:

In a another passage [Sam] Harris goes even further, and reaches a disturbing conclusion that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”. This sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition.

Well, that's a horrible quote all right. Horribly out of context! Check out ALoB article for the full context!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Confrontation. What is my focus?

My wife just unexpectedly breached our do-not-talk-of-religion taboo. Even though her phrasing was not conducive to dialog -- she was more interested in making a point -- I am very glad to see some discussion maybe starting to happen. It's certainly better than none.

I had just read an article on Afarensis disputing one anti-evolutionist's claim that:

All the hominid fossils we have wouldn't fill a single coffin.
Afarensis handily deals with this misconception, summarizing with:

The Catalogue of Fossil Hominids put out by the British Natural History Museum in 1976 listed over 3900 fossils. I've heard recent estimates in the 10,000 range. In short, DaveScot doesn't know what he is talking about.
I found this amusing and related the story and the summary to my wife. She took it in, and sighed over the original claim. And then she stopped, leaned a bit against the piano behind her, and said, "You know...." That's when it happened. The breach! It wasn't complimentary -- in fact, it was a complaint. But that's really beside the point. It was dialog. Just a bit. But there it was.

She told me that she didn't like how I was always complaining. That all I ever did while "learning to become an atheist" was focus on how stupid intelligent design people were. She admitted that yes, they were in fact stupid (she's a biology major and understands even more of evolution than I do), but she didn't like me talking about it all of the time. She equated it to her constantly talking about how stupid Muslims were, or Jews were for, say, not beliving in Jesus' divinity. "You wouldn't like it if I did that all the time, would you?"

I decided to ignore the "learning to become an atheist" phrasing, even though I found it very insulting on a visceral level that I might explore later. It was probably just a slip of the tongue, probably in lieu of "learning about being an atheist." I was more interested in her use of the word "focus." I started wondering what, exactly, my focus is. Did atheists as a group have a focus, or was there only the focus of each individual atheist? How could I even begin to explain myself if I hadn't determined this distinction yet?

I'm not sure how she took my silence as I contemplated this, but she gave me a few seconds, told me "Think about that," and walked off.

It was not the best dialog I could have hoped for, but as I said it was a breach in our religion taboo and any breach is welcome. Best of all, she left me with something to contemplate.

It wasn't what she had really intended me to contemplate, of course. Her seeming interpretation of my atheism as a series of complaints against anti-evolutionists is simply because evolution is our common ground, so those are the stories and statistics that I relate to her. Specifically, it has been things like the public acceptance of evolution statistics, or gripes about Ken Ham's creation museum. Her analogy is poor because she is comparing the dispute over the scientifically supported concept of evolution with a dispute over an untestable traditional belief. In essense, comparing a dispute over fact with a dispute over opinion.

This is like a math student complaining to an english major that is spreading incorrect answers to math problems. When the math student calls him on the issue, the english major defends himself by saying, "You wouldn't like it if I spent all my time saying how stupid it is to like math, would you?" The correctness of math problems, which can be right or wrong, should not be compared with a preference or interest. Using this kind of correlation in an argument would be a logical fallacy known as a non sequitur. (which translates to "it doesn't follow")

Another aspect to her complaint is that the stories I relate and the complaints I make are usually over individuals, and very rarely regarding entire social/cultural groups. The only time I make comments on groups is when referring to statistical findings -- also very different from disputing traditions. When referring to individuals, I only need to say the words "Fred Phelps" to show that I am not the only one between the two of us that makes complaints of a religious action or belief!

But as I said, it was the term "focus" that really got me thinking. Do atheists, as a group, have a focus? Can we? In contrast, I would assume that a theists' focus could be something like, "follow the wisdom or Jesus," or "save as many souls as possible," or "wipe out the infidels," or "spread Christian love," or even just "live a good life and get to heaven," etc. But since the only real definition of atheism is the lack of any god belief I find that there is a corresponding lack of any atheistically-defined focus. We have no doctrine, therefore we can never have a doctrine-defined-focus. Instead, rather like discovering your own unique meaning of life, individual atheists must determine their own focus. Some examples are Dawkins, who has clearly stated that he hopes The God Delusion will change some minds and reduce the evils stemming from religion. Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor put much of their effort into defending the separation of church and state. The list goes on. But what is my focus?

I would have to say that my primary focus, lately, has been to become as educated an atheist as I can become. This includes becoming versed in god/atheism and evolution/ID arguments, spotting logical fallacies, learning more about the bible, learning more about world religions, and so on. My goal for this is to be able to hold my own in any discussions or debates that may come up, so that my position will never look like a weak one. A secondary focus is to be part of the larger atheist community in order to fill a social gap in my life, to start and contribute to discussions and reflections in order to learn more about myself and other atheists, and to find friends.

What my wife has interpreted as my only focus is actually a side-effect of a distant, third focus. As an atheist and a Bright, I am also acutely interested in truth. The scientist inside of me cringes every time I hear of such ridiculous misconceptions as the 'hominid coffin' statement above. I feel the need to try and counter the spread of such misconceptions and lies with an attempt to spread the truth. If I spend any time complaining about them, it is only my inner scientist trying to bury the lies. It is a reflex -- a gag reflex -- to spit out any garbage that has infected my day.

What is my focus? Knowledge, friendship, and truth. What is yours?