Monday, August 25, 2008

The Consequences of a Belief

An anonymous comment on my last post, "Rude? What makes some theists think atheists are rude?" took strong exception to an Op-Ed I also criticized:

It's simultaneously sad and insulting that the author of the Op-Ed isn't aware that most "religious" hospitals and aid agencies are primarily funded by secular money. The vast majority of funding for Catholic hospitals comes from government and private donations, not from the Vatican.

I'm really, really getting sick of the "without religion there are no morals/ethics and atheists don't have any interest in taking care of anyone besides themselves". Tell that to the Swiss, or Sweden, or Norway, or for that matter just about any country in Europe that has both higher standards of living and higher levels of "non-belief" than the US.

The Swiss? I can see Sweden and Norway, but I thought Switzerland was one of the more religious countries in Europe.

But I do understand the point and I'm sick of it too. There is a heavily touted religious assumption that turning away from God will result in all kinds of societal ills. So, if that were true, you'd expect the least religious nations to be riddled with crime, poverty and other problems while the more religious nations would be more well behaved. However, when actually compared, (as Phil Zuckerman reports here), it turned out that highly irreligious countries, those with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics, were among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies. And the most religious nations were among the most unstable, violent, oppressive, poor, and destitute.

Well, sort of, one actually has to distinguish between totalitarian nations where so called "atheism" is forced upon an unwilling population, like in North Korea, China and some former Soviet states, and open, democratic nations where atheism grew up naturally among a well-educated population, as in Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan. Corruption and economic stagnation do plague many former Soviet states.

Steven Pinker's, "A History of Violence," also notes that in spite of the great mass killings of two world wars, of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, that you had better chances of living long and dying peacefully, rather than dying violently while young, in the 20th century than you did in any century previously.

However, it is unfair to take a complex issue like the connection between moral behavior and religion and just site evidence that supports our view. Some famous atheists skew the argument so that it dodges certain aspects of the question. For example, Christopher Hitchens here:

Early in his talk Hitchens notes how he was asked, "where would your morals come from if there was no God?" To underline the question he uses a pseudo-quote from Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" that goes: "If God does not exist, everything is permitted."

Hitchens has two arguments against this assertion, first, he points out that it is base and insulting to suggest that people wouldn't be moral without the rewards and punishments offered by religion. We are smart enough to reason out what kind of rules we need in order to work together and good enough to abide with them without gods peeking into our every thought punishing us for them. Secondly, he points out that it's stupid to think that when Moses led the Israelites across the desert to Mount Sinai he would then, for the first time, tell them that rape, murder, perjury and theft were bad things when he handed down the commandments. No, says Hitchens, they would never have gotten to Mount Sinai if they didn't know those were bad things. Human solidarity requires it of us, we can't make a functional society without such laws.

On the first point, it may indeed be base and insulting to suggest that people need religious rewards and punishments in order to behave ethically, but that doesn't mean that for certain people it isn't true. I've gotten into arguments where Christians actually brag about how base they are, saying if not for God they would be stealing and killing. I doubt that, but in some cases it might be true. How do you argue with it? Some people are base and deserve to be insulted. We certainly think we need police, courts and enforced laws, don't we? Those are just Earthly punishments and we're base enough to need them. So, if you can con a few shmucks into fearing an all powerful, all seeing, fantasy judge in the sky you just might get a little more moral behavior out of certain people.

On the second point, while it's true that almost all of the ten commandments existed before Moses in other codes of law, in Egyptian codes of law, and Egypt is where Moses and the Israelites supposedly came from, they still had religious origins. The earliest known such code of laws was The Code Of Hammurabi, written during the birth of Mesopotamia and they not only predate the Ten Commandments they predate the Dynasties of Egypt, long before Moses supposedly brought the Commandments down from Mt. Sinai.

So, while Hitchens' argument works against Christians, Muslims and Jews, it's not an argument against the use of general religious rewards and punishments to help enforce morality. Even The Code Of Hammurabi was handed down by a sun-god. Of course, a significant difference is that the Hammurabi had 282 commandments and perhaps, if God wanted future Christians to remember his, he added something significant by shortening the list. Though he apparently failed at making them memorable, as Stephen Colbert demonstrates here:

There are other lines of evidence to support the pro-religion argument where it concerns morality, for example, on Jonah Lehrer's blog I found "Free Will and Ethics," a post about how believing in free-will can affect our ethical behavior. It's about Kathleen D. Vohs' and Jonathan W. Schooler's experiment that is supposed to establish that "Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating."

While I think this study is open to some criticism and should be replicated by other experimenters, I will for the sake of argument, if I may, take it at face value. Suppose it's true. Does it mean society would be better off not knowing the truth about free-will if it really is something of an illusion? To say that is to suggest that lying to people is a good idea because it will make them more honest which is a bit of a paradox. The study says almost nothing about whether we have "free-will" or not, whatever that actually means. And what can it mean if it changes your ethical behavior? (Think about that a moment, why would believing in free-will make you more moral?)

Oddly, the statements that they used in one experiment to manipulate beliefs about free-will seem to argue against free-will. They included statements such as, "I am able to override the genetic and environmental factors that sometimes influence my behavior," which is an environmental factor designed to influence their behavior -- and it worked! (In fact, that they found it so easy to manipulate undergraduate behavior with a few statements about free-will is the most shocking result of the study for me. It means most undergrads haven't made up their minds about free-will already.) The statement, "avoiding temptation requires that I exert my free will" also incorporates a vaguely religious concept, "temptation."

The determinism statements that participants read included, "A belief in free will contradicts the known fact that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science," and "ultimately, we are biological computers - designed by evolution, built through genetics, and programmed by the environment," simply included no moral or ethical overtones at all. They accomplish a couple things morally, I think, they undermine the concept of the "policeman in your head" that religion gives people and they also undermined the idea about being ultimately responsible for our behavior.

What's left out of those "determinism" supporting statements is the idea that while we are not "ultimately responsible" for a behavior in some metaphysical or religious sense, we still have other kinds of responsibilities, like social responsibility, which still exists in a deterministic world. However, does that kind of social responsibility really preclude us from taking money from seeming idiots who make it seem easy to cheat them out of a few bucks? Are the social consequences that dire?

Maybe this study only indicates that American morality is too dependent on religious foundations and not rooted enough in critical thinking about ethics and instilling children with a sense of social responsibility. (I wonder if college and high school courses critical in thinking about ethics and social responsibility might help pave the way towards a more atheistic society on a couple levels - it might be a good stealth move.) Would we get different results if the study were done in Sweden where the ethical foundations might be shifting or already different? Can you even get people to behave ethically with only some lessons in critical thinking about ethics? Can you instill social responsibility in people after they know free-will is an illusion? Those questions still remain unaddressed, but I suspect that you might use a discussion of ethics and social responsibility to get the same effects that talk about free-will and temptation do. Let's see that experiment.

Another argument that was used against Hitchens was this one from Chris Hedges:

Chris Hedges makes a good point, even though he misses Hitchens' point badly. Hedges is right to say that you can't get rid of "evil" by abolishing religion. However, "religion" as Hitchens defines it, not as Hedges does, seems to contribute something uniquely bad to the human condition. It results in things like the "Imaginary Virtues" discussed over at Daylight Atheism, and the ethical misdirection, in "'People of Faith': Religion as Ethical Misdirection," discussed by Greta Christina. Religious morality isn't about how people can best live and work together for everyone's gain, it's about doing what God says no matter what effect it has on others. At the extreme end of that you wind up with the thinking of future toddler chopper Vox Day who would murder children if God ordered it. Or you might even wind up with something worse than Vox Day, like this:

It's not just Muslims with crazy jihadist ideas, Joel's Army is fighting to bring about the millennial reign of Christ. It's because of people like Vox Day and the Muslim convert that Plato invented the Euthyphro dilemma: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?"

Even when religion isn't so extreme its adherents will accept arbitrary religious edicts that offer no real benefit to any human being and give them the same weight as they do the ones that benefit people. However, and in spite of all the news stories about Catholic priests buggering kids and people like Ted Haggard and Larry Craig, the religious policeman in the heads of many believers probably does add some threat and promise to their moral behavior that you don't get from secular law enforcement and mere knowledge about ethics. It might have some positive effects that will be lost if our society becomes less religious.

If our society becomes less religious it will probably be a mix of the good and the bad that comes with our views. The price of achieving moral and ethical clarity, of dumping the ethical misdirections and artificial virtues, is giving up the rewards and punishments in the afterlife. That may mean we need a better and more expensive police force. On the other hand, some moral and ethical clarity would probably greatly improve our nation's foreign policy. It will not be anywhere near as bad as some religious people think, but it will also not be as good as some atheists seem to think. So, when I see things like this "Imagine No Religion" ad:

I have mixed feelings because I know that when religious people "imagine no religion" they're not imagining the same thing most atheists are and I also know that I can't, in fact, predict what such a world would be like. It only works if you are ready to consider a world without religion as at least good thing, and in general I do, but I wouldn't paint it as a utopia. Certainly, of course, it will not be a dystopia.

Don't believe anyone who thinks they know for sure what a world with no religion would be like or that it is even possible. We know things will change if things continue to shift and that beliefs have consequences, but they really can't be anticipated. And don't believe such a world could even happen.

What could happen instead, what may be happening according to polls, is that we might achieve a new balance where atheists and less dogmatic believers become a larger percentage of the population. Like Dan Dennett says, with religion, as with germs, the "trick is not to try to annihilate them. You will never annihilate the germs. What you can do, however, is foster public health measures, and the like, that will encourage the evolution of avirulence. That will encourage the spread of relatively benign mutations of the most toxic varieties."

Science will probably remain heavily dominated by atheistic and agnostic types, but remember this wasn't the case a few hundred years ago, as Neil deGrasse Tyson notes here:

There was once a time, just a few hundred years ago, when even scientists were mostly religious. That changed because a few scientific discoveries undermined religious beliefs. A small segment, but an important segment, of humanity, most of our best scientists, have now mostly shifted out of religion into a naturalistic view of the world. That means something. But it doesn't necessarily mean what you think it means.

It didn't mean what Joseph McCabe thought when he wrote, in "Is The Position Of Atheism Growing Stronger": "That the growth is such that if freedom is again generally secured in the next 10 years we may justly expect Atheists to be more numerous than genuine Christians in 20 years." That was almost seventy years ago and it never happened.

The basic arguments of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and even PZ Myers are very similar to Joseph McCabe's, but now they sell a little better or at least give you a bigger audience for your blog. I like the red meat those guys toss out, all the stupid creationists who don't have a clue, the crazy Catholics going rabid because of a cracker, pig-fucking ignorant religious bloggers, the amazing gaffs and denials of reality, the amazing, bald-faced lies and the utterly whacky comic antics of the religious, but we can't make it go away just by pointing it out and we should try to reach a broader audience than just those who call themselves atheists.

I know some religious people who find all that anti-fundy red meat just as delicious and who deal it out themselves. I think we share similar goals.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rude? What makes some theists think atheists are rude?

PZ Myers is saying, "Godless Coloradans, rise up!" because the DNC has chosen to spurn a significant bloc of voters who are not "people of faith." So, there's a demonstration planned for the Democratic Convention.

This may, or may not, be a good idea, it all depends on how it's handled. I think it will be important to work against the stereotype that atheists are aggressive, raving lunatics and that they're rude and insulting. If the protest is smarter and more polite than any other protest ever seen and still gets on the news it could drive home some important points. Maybe use smarter signs like: "They say they don't have enough faith to be atheists, and yet they don't consider atheists to be people of faith? Is this hypocrisy?" Don't yell and scream. Don't try to get arrested. It shouldn't be that kind of protest.

The ironic thing is that if the demonstration happens, such protest will make the Democrats appear more religious because they share the same anti-atheist bigotry as the Republicans. It might give them a small boost when people see the Democrats don't like us either.

One of the arguments against the atheists being included in the event is this Gazette Op-Ed called, "Dems dismiss the atheists. Why rude guests aren't welcome." Of course, the article itself is a quite rude, insulting, presumptuous and deeply bigoted, saying "a few atheists have their panties in a twist once again," because an atheist wasn't invited to speak at an interfaith service that's part of the Democratic National Convention. It will feature Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist speakers, but not an atheist. Why not? "Probably because they're rude," says the author.

What's wrong with the Op-Ed is a little too obvious to spend a lot of time on, but I will give it a bit of space even though it's the same crap I've blogged on before, and so have many others. I do want to call your attention to it because it spells out a common stereotype and straw man where "atheism is a religion," at least from the standpoint of government, and where "one belief is no more valid than another."

One belief no more valid than another? Really? So, a belief that that we live on a flat Earth at the center of the universe is just as valid as a belief that our Earth is merely one of several planets orbiting a rather average star? Is a belief that God created the Earth and all creatures on it 6,000 years ago just as valid as the belief that the Earth is about 4 billion years old and life evolved? I don't think so, but I wonder if the Op-Ed writer is a creationist.

The Op-Ed goes on to say:

Therefore a belief in creation - or an original intelligence, Jesus, Buddha, or the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" - is no more valid in the eyes of the law than the odd belief that nothing could possibly exist beyond what our embryonic state of scientific discovery has seen in our relatively primitive microscopes and telescopes.

If it were true that "in the eyes of the law" all religious beliefs are of equal validity then how could a judge declare that Deanna Laney was insane when she claimed that God told her to kill her sons? How could the law decide if Banita Jacks was wrong about her four daughters being "possessed by demons"? How would the law know that Andrea Yates didn't have a valid religious belief when she claimed that she killed her children because "they didn't do things God likes."

If the law really saw all religious beliefs as equally valid then the Militant Islamic belief that laws should be rooted in Sharia would be just as valid as our belief in religious freedom and separation of church and state. Of course, the Op-Ed's example doesn't speak to a belief that appears, at first glance, to have much consequence, creation by an original intelligence versus scientific discovery, but that too is wrong. Our courts have decided that creationists cannot call their creationist beliefs science and then have them taught in a science class.

The eyes of the law must decide which beliefs are valid when matters of legal consequence are involved and the Op-Ed is false on this point.

The Op-Ed confuses validity with certainty, I can have valid beliefs without being a hundred percent certain of them, and statements like "embryonic state of scientific discovery has seen in our relatively primitive microscopes and telescopes" indicate a desire to reject science and it's the kind of thing a creationist says.

From there the Op-Ed only gets worse:

To rational thinkers, atheism seems a sad and shallow belief. That's because great scientists understand that, metaphorically, they've discovered little more than the drawings on the walls of a cave. They don't know what's beyond the cave or how it began. As Albert Einstein said: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. ... a legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist."

Really, "rational thinkers"? All of them? I guess most of the worlds top scientists are not rational thinkers because among the top natural scientists, disbelief is greater than ever — almost total.

... a number of atheists have taken to confronting and insulting believers of other religions. They pretend that atheist beliefs are proven true, while others are proven false. They refer to other religions as "irrational," and "superstitious." Their approach to ministry is overbearing and rude. They engage in confrontation, with disregard for persuasion. It's as if they've watched too much "American Idol," where Simon Cowell briefly made it hip to be the bully.

He must be talking about stuff like this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

But I don't think you'd get anything like that from a speaker sent by the Coalition of Secular Voters any more than you would expect a hellfire and brimstone sermon about your sinful nature from any of the other groups that have speakers at the event. If you think you would then you don't really understand the scope of atheism.

Hitler imagined a world without Jews. The Freedom From Religion Foundation rented a billboard near the Colorado Convention Center that says: "Imagine No Religion."

Imagine a world with no religion and one sees a world without the Golden Rule, devoid of most charities, hospitals and great universities. One sees hurricane recovery zones, minus all the chartered planes and buses full of churchgoers giving their time and money to rebuild homes. How many children are fed and clothed by atheist charity organizations? Approximately none.

Imagine no religion and one sees a world ruled by atheist tyrants - Pol Pot, Albania's Enver Hoxha, Stalin and Mao, to name a few - who have murdered tens of millions in modern efforts to cleanse society of religion.

Hitler, eh? I'm not going to bother much with the above except to underline it as having been written. If the Op-Ed had said something like that about any other group the writer would probably have been fired.

American Muslims, Baptists, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Mormons, Quakers, Amish, etc., don't erect billboards saying "Imagine No Atheists." They don't advocate government force to cleanse atheist expressions and teachings from the public square. They don't imply that atheists are "irrational," even though atheists claim absolute knowledge. They don't advocate theft and desecration of atheist property, even though an atheist hero in Minnesota stole and destroyed the Catholic Eucharist.

Religious people may not have erected billboards saying "Imagine No Atheists," but religious groups sure do love to erect billboards saying all kinds of things. The roadsides are full of crosses and God campaigns. There have been billboards saying, "Sharia law is hate," anti-Evolution Billboards and billboards asking "Why Do Atheists Hate America?" They even put up billboards saying that Saturday, rather than Sunday, was the true Sabbath.

Also, the veiled claim that atheists "advocate government force to cleanse theist expressions and teachings from the public square" is simply a blatant lie hidden by an inverse claim. By saying theists don't do it to atheists he implies that atheists do it to theists. The writer doesn't have the guts to come out and say something so blatantly false, so they only hint at it. This is a claim I generally associate with the Intelligent Design movement and creationism. However, in this case, it's more likely aimed the groups that fight against Ten Commandments displays, enforced school prayer times and the words "under God" in the pledge. It's deeply unfair to hint that this is an attempt to "cleanse theist expressions and teachings from the public square." What they are trying to do is make sure that the government does not endorse religion in an impermissible way. It's interpreted as a violation of First Amendment to the United States Constitution because of a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote where he said the intention of that amendment was to create a "wall of separation" between church and state. Not all expressions are cleansed and this vague thing called "the public square" is much larger than the intended target.

The most phony thing, however, about that claim is that it's not just atheists that want to make sure that the government does not endorse religion in an impermissible way. Many Christians, Jews and other believers have participated in that fight.

Democrats will nominate a Christian gentleman who respects others. It's likely they didn't invite atheists to their faith service because they didn't want embarrassing guests. Atheists might bring pseudointellectual proselytizers, who are intolerant, self-aggrandizing and rude. Atheists should fund universities and hospitals. They should feed and clothe starving kids. They should act more like Christians and Jews. If they do some of that - if they contribute to a diverse humanity - they might get better party invites.

Talk about pseudo-intellectual proselytizers, who are intolerant, self-aggrandizing and rude. That's pretty much what I thought of this Op-Ed. Also if he thinks that atheists should fund universities and hospitals, feed and clothe starving kids in order get invited to the party, then I think he better invite Bill Gates and Warren Buffet because those two atheists have given billions of dollars in order to do things like that.

The Op-Ed, I think, represents the kind of thing atheists should try to work against. It's an image problem that's mostly fed by dishonest writers like the person who wrote that Op-Ed, but Christopher Hitchens probably isn't helping us in that department either.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Question of Evil

Robert S. McElvaine, over at huffPo, has a good post called, "Obama vs. "Oh, Bomb 'Em" -- Who's the Christian?" I don't quite agree with everything McElvaine says, but he does bring up a good example of another loaded question that was asked of both candidates at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. It was the question about "evil." Rev. Warren asked Obama:

...let me ask you one about evil. Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?

There seem to be some missing options there. One of them would be to study evil scientifically, ask why people do such things and see if we can fathom it, then come up with strategies to deal with it and prevent it. However, we don't know what kind of evil Warren is talking about. Does Warren believe in the devil, in the demonic, in some metaphysical, supernatural version of evil?

If so, then that scientific option might seem pretty silly to Warren's world view.

Obama's answer was:

Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely, and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, now, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God's task, but we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it.

Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil's been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.

I like Obama's last few setences there. He almost repeats them here at the end:

... one thing that's very important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think that our intentions are good, doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good.

Tomás de Torquemada, the first Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition probably thought he was doing good, bringing people to Christ through torture. President Bush probably thinks he was doing good by authorizing torture.

Osama bin Laden probably thinks he too is doing good and he apparently thinks the West is evil.

What annoys me about Obama's answer is that it was coy. His idea of evil, so called, seems nuanced and relative, but you can't be quite sure. He doesn't lay everything on the line. To say "just because we think that our intentions are good, doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good," and then not fill that in with an example of some kind, like how president Bush probably is not doing good by continuing the war in Iraq, left the whole thing too vague and abstract. I got a sense he felt he had to hold back. He also doesn't clarify whether he shares Warren's possibly metaphysical view of evil.

Of course, neither did McCain. When Warren asked McCain, he used only slightly different wording:

How about the issue of evil. I asked this of your rival, in the previous debate. Does evil exist and, if so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?

McCain answered:

Defeat it. A couple of points. One, if I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of innocent American lives.

If McCain really knows how to get bin Laden, why doesn't he tell George Bush how to do it right now? I don't have much confidence in his answer. It's just bragging and bravado and it's not backed up by any evidence. It's not a brag you can credibly make when one of the biggest failures in this war is that we haven't gotten bin Laden after 7 years of trying using half America's military force.

McCain's answer contains the same hubris that President Bush used campaigning for his second term. It now seems ludicrous to believe it. Not when civil war in Iraq is still a possibility, when bin Laden is still free, when there has been little progress in restraining Iran's nuclear ambitions, when tensions between Israel and Syria are higher than before, and then add Russia's invasion of Georgia and we've got a mess. Nothing McCain said suggests he could do better than Bush with this mess, in fact all this bluff and bravado seems to make the problem worse.

McCain continued:

Of course, evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcended challenge of the 21st century -- radical Islamic extremism.

Not long ago in Baghdad, al Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled, and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and, by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn't evil, you have to tell me what is.

OK, the blowing up of mentally disabled women is "evil" of a sort in my eyes, but so was preemptively invading Iraq based on what seems to be cherry-picked intelligence that got it all wrong.

And we're going to defeat this evil. And the central battleground according to David Petraeus and Osama bin Laden in the battle, is Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq and we are winning and succeeding and our troops will come home with honor and with victory and not in defeat. And that's what's happening.

Another naked assertion not backed up by any credible evidence. Is the central battleground in the war on terror really Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq? I don't think so. I agree with what Obama has said before, it's that border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where the terrorists are still training.

And we face this threat throughout the world. It's not just in Iraq. It's not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us al Qaeda continues to try to establish cells here in the United States of America. My friends, we must face this challenge. We can face this challenge. And we must totally defeat it, and we're in a long struggle. But when I'm around, the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform, I have no doubt, none.

McCain's response was called, "crisp, immediate and forceful." It could also be called aggressive, paranoid and simple-minded asinine machismo. If our intelligence people tell us al Qaeda is still trying to establish cells here in America, then I need to see some arrests to back it up. I'd like to see more than just vague threats like this; "CIA Chief: Al Qaeda Infiltrators 'Look Western'" from the counterterrorism blog.

The same blog tries to identify some of the problems we've had:

This remains the primary challenge to America in dealing with Jihad. Without defining Jihad's ideological basis, desperate governmental leaders and policy analysts revert to using outdated tactical measures that are focused on regional threats and Cold War statist measures. Without a strategy defining the ideological threat, government and policy leaders are confused, misguided, and frightened, and offer half-measure tactics.

In today's America, this combination of factors has resulted in the current ambiguous "war on extremism."

To effectively deal with the war of ideas that Jihad represents, American government and policy leaders must honestly and clearly define the enemy ideology, and reject regional and statist tactics that are designed for a different enemy than we are fighting today.

As I said above, there were missing options in the "dealing with evil" question, like studying it scientifically. Of course, we already do. You can even take a peak at Scott Atran's "TERRORISM AND RADICALIZATION: WHAT TO DO, WHAT NOT TO DO."

It sums up some research by Scott Atran and Marc Sageman done for the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. And who knows what tools have been developed by the CIA for more covert use?

Since we are dealing with a religious ideology it would seem that Dan Dennett's call for a deeper study of religion, outlined in "Breaking the Spell," has importance as a tool in our war on what McCain called "radical Islamic extremism." The problem with this approach is that there seems to be a lot of conflicting opinion on how to deal with terrorism and religion scientifically and you can see how Scott Atran got into it with Sam Harris and others at

McElvaine, on the other hand, looks at McCain's vow to "defeat evil" and asks in what gospel did Jesus say, "Shoot first and ask questions later"? To McElvaine the values of the Christian Right are deeply unChristian. What Jesus said on what to do about evil is almost the opposite of what McCain said: "But I say to you, 'Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.'" (Matt. 5:39) McElvaine then offers up a list of other biblical quotes, most about anger rather than evil, to support his case.

McElvaine, of course, has a book to sell, "Grand Theft Jesus," that blames the Roman Emperor Constantine for overturning the teachings of Jesus 1700 years ago. Constantine is said to have converted the Roman Empire to Christianity but McElvaine says that he really converted Christianity to the Roman Empire and turned the Prince of Peace into the Prince of War, an ally of the rich and the ruler. He thinks people like McCain and the rest of the "Christian Right" should be called Constantinians, not Christians. Maybe we should call the current Constantinians neo-Constantinians and then shorten that to neocon?

Alas, while I do think that McElvaine is on target when pointing out the differences between Constantinians and the intentions of the New Testament authors, I also think the answers provided by both the Constantinians and the Christians on how to deal with evil suck. It's no wonder that the Right rejected Jesus' teachings, they did it because those teachings don't work for them.

Can you imagine what would happen if we were attacked by another country and our president refused to counter attack? Sometimes it's the only way to protect us from more future attacks. Even if a president did it on the basis of the 'turn the other cheek' passage in scripture, by trying apply Christian doctrine to war, I suspect even McElvaine would want to vote him out of office.

There are only two cases where you should not resist evil, the first, when you're too weak to win the battle and surrender is the only way to survive, and second, when you're so strong that your enemy's strikes don't harm you. Otherwise, I think we are morally obligated to resist violent aggression in both ourselves and others.

The New Testament mindfuck offers believers a belief in both the strength and the weakness to turn the other cheek. The weakness comes from the fact that, according to the New Testament, the world is in the control of the devil. You are instructed not to love the world or anything of it.

"The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." 1 John 2:15-17 NIV


We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 1 John 5:19 NIV


For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Eph 6:12-13 NIV

The Devil offers Jesus the world during Christ's temptation in the wilderness. He took Jesus to a mountaintop and showed him all the kingdoms of the world saying: "All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me." Matt 4:8-9 NIV

You can't promise Jesus something that isn't yours. But the devil only has control of the world because people are in sin and the devil will lose control during the millennial reign of Christ when the new heaven and new earth are established.

A New Testament Christian's strength is his belief in a supernatural world where this material world can no longer touch him. His weakness is his defeatist belief that this world is hopelessly evil until Jesus returns. New Testament Christianity merely offers a compensatory fantasy and a beyond this world hope for those on the bottom of life's heap, it doesn't instruct its believers on what to do when they are in charge. They have to go back to the Old Testament for that. That's where you find the "gospel" of "Shoot first and ask questions later."

It's in the theocratic Old Testament where you find the warrior leaders that Bush and McCain seem to emulate. Think of the Old Testament stories of Gideon, Joshua and the warrior-king David. So, McElvaine can't really say all this macho bravado is unbiblical, it's just not a New Testament world for Christians any more. It hasn't been one since the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

When is a question a lie?

A question is a lie when it is loaded with hidden assumptions and when important premises are buried in code words and euphemisms and when it doesn't reflect the reality of the situation it pretends to address. In that context then, the questions that Rev. Rick Warren asked at his Saddleback Civic Forum on the presidency were mostly lies.

There has been a concerned citizens initiative, cosponsored by lots of scientific institutions, representing over 125 million Americans that have been calling for a science debate. Alas, instead of that debate we are getting yet another religious debate that just muddies the waters and makes secularists like the Rev. Barry W. Lynn declare that Barack Obama should not have agreed to do this.

I don't agree with Lynn that Obama should have refused this debate, but I do think, as a partial secularist, Obama got screwed by the dishonest questions Warren asked. Don't underestimate the audience, Barry, we can see how Rick Warren screwed Obama over.

Rick Warren's questions played directly into the talking points McCain has been spouting on the campaign trail for months. He gave simplistic, almost infantile answers and the bleating sheep at Saddleback loved it. His answers were mostly sound bites. They were loaded with key words and phrases that were calculated to resonate with an evangelical audience. There was not much thought or substance to his answers. Since the sheep are only trying to decide which of the two is the more "Jesusier" McCain won on that score. However, I hope that is only a minority opinion nationally and that for those outside the evangelical shadow the questions and answers will ultimately damage McCain and Warren more than they did Obama.

Warren is slowly revealing himself to the nation as just another religious huckster without any kind of real integrity.

I was disappointed to see that neither candidate pointed out just how loaded Rick Warren's questions were. One of the more glaring examples of a dishonest question was the one Warren asked about abortion:

... abortion; 40 million abortions since Roe v. Wade. As a pastor, I have to deal with this all of the time, all of the pain and all of the conflicts. I know this is a very complex issue. Forty million abortions, at what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?

My answer would shock Warren's evangelical audience because my answer is "never." There is no point in time when a baby gets all human rights. Does Warren think that a fetus has a right to drink alcohol and vote? If there is a single point in time when we get rights then shouldn't that include all the rights? Warren's question is a fraud, loaded with simple minded evangelical assumptions. Warren should never have used the word "rights" in plural because there is only one right in question, the right of a fetus to continue living and developing. To use the plural is to subtly lie and suggest a fetus is more human than it is. It simply can't do anything else besides grow and develop. There is also a conflict between this right of the fetus versus the rights, plural, of the mother. Warren's question totally ignores the other human being, the mother; what about her rights?

The real question Warren should have been asking was "when do the rights of a fetus supercede the rights of the woman carrying the fetus?" Or, more precisely, "when does a fetus' right to continue living and developing supercede the rights of the woman carrying the fetus to deal with whatever issues her pregnancy introduces into her life by terminating that pregnancy?"

Ask the question that way and suddenly you're dealing with more nuance. What issues exactly is the woman dealing with? Is her life in danger from the pregnancy? Was she raped? Is she a teenage girl who doesn't even want her parents to know she got pregnant?

Obama really disappointed me when he failed to see that the question itself was a loaded, dishonest fraud. He just tried to cop out of it by saying "whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade."

Bullshit, it's not a theological or scientific question, it's a legal question about the rights of two parties that are in conflict. Science can inform that question, but Warren's theology should not inform our legal position. Obama gave up an important secular principle by even suggesting that one's theological views have any baring on the answer.

I think anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think, is not paying attention. So that would be point number one.

Great, but why, Mr. Obama, don't you have the balls to tell Warren he did just that by framing the question in the way Warren did?

I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade, and I come to that conclusion not because I'm pro-abortion, but because, ultimately, I don't think women make these decisions casually. I think they wrestle with these things in profound ways, in consultation with their pastors or their spouses or their doctors or their family members.

But Warren never mentioned mothers, did he? He wanted them to become as invisible as possible. So, Obama just answered the question Warren should have asked without pointing out what was wrong with the original question.

... how do we reduce the number of abortions? The fact is that although we have had a president who is opposed to abortion over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down and that is something we have to address.

This is a worthy point, but it is an old saw. The problem is that if it is just about reducing the number of abortions then the evangelicals are right to make abortion illegal. That will reduce them the most. The problem is that I don't think this should be the most important goal in our policy.

Obama simply panders to this fraud telling us that he wants limits on late-term abortions, if there is an exception for the mother's health. He tells us how he respects pro-life views:

... if you believe that life begins at conception, then -- and you are consistent in that belief, then I can't argue with you on that, because that is a core issue of faith for you.

What I can do is say, are there are ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, so that we actually are reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions. And as an example of that, one of the things that I've talked about is how do we provide the resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child. You know, have we given them the health care that they need? Have we given them the support services that they need? Have we given them the options of adoption that are necessary?

That can make a genuine difference.

Obama is right here, but that point isn't going to sink in for the evangelicals because Obama just pandered to a fraud by offering another fraud. He talked about the rights of women to a man who never asked about the mothers, who quite nakedly ignored them in his question and missed the whole point in this controversy: This is about two entities and their conflicting rights.

What I think is good about Obama's answer is that providing resources that allow women to keep children, give them the health care and support services that they need, is that this improves the quality of our next generation of children. That old saying, "the children are our future," is true. They are a product we produce that is ignored by estimates of our gross national product, our GNP, the total market value of all the goods and services produced by a nation during a specified period. Yet they will be selling their services in the job market and they should be taken into account. If that policy helps reduce abortions it is only a side effect, not the real purpose of the policy. To suggest that it is, well, that was Obama's fraud.

McCain's answer to the same abortion question, like George Bush's before:

At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president. And this presidency will have pro-life policies. That's my commitment. That's my commitment to you.

And that was it. Warren then asked McCain to define marriage and dropped the subject of abortion. But think how McCain would have struggled if the question were the one Obama answered, but didn't actually hear: "When do the rights of a fetus supercede the rights of the woman carrying the fetus?"

McCain's answer: at the moment of conception the fetus' rights supercede all the rights of the mother to terminate the pregnancy?

Maybe he wouldn't give the same answer if he had been asked the real question. When Obama didn't challenge the question he guaranteed that McCain would be asked the fraud question.

If Obama were really smart he might have asked pastor Rick this question:

That's only one example of a dishonest question. If nothing new grabs my attention I may write about some of the others in my next posts.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dealing with religion in a respectful manner

Dan Dennett, in his TED talk, shows us how to deal with religion in a respectful manner. He does this by comparing it to a cow:

Rick Warren had been invited to the TED (Technology, Education, Design) conference and Warren gave this talk: Rick Warren: Living a life of purpose. Another link.

Dan Dennett gave the above talk as a response to Warren. However, Dennett doesn't really address Warren's talk but rather he addresses the subject of religion and Rick Warren's book, "The Purpose Driven Life." In many ways that book, as far as I can tell from Dennett's use of quotes, seems to betray the same abysmal ignorance of evolution I wrote about in my previous post about Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort.

Note how Dennett first introduces us to his own understanding of religion as a powerful set of social institutions that are subject to natural selection, like the cow, and that have, also like the cow, been influenced by human tinkering. He then compliments Rick Warren for his tinkering with religion. Dennett calls it a "brilliant book," and a redesign of traditional religion.

At no point does Dennett call Warren ignorant, but that charge is still heavily implied. Dennett does it by calling Intelligent Design a fraud and then pointing out that Warren endorses Intelligent Design, Warren perhaps even believes in Noah's flood and creationism. I also doubt whether Warren thinks he is "redesigning" Christianity, but I'm pretty sure the facts will bare out Dennett's view. Religion, when you focus on metaphors and symbolic meaning as Warren did in his talk, teaches whatever a believer wants to be believe. It just depends on how the believer cherry picks it.

Also note how it is only towards the end of his talk, after Dennett has explained his view of religion and then heaped on the compliments, that Dennett gets into what he sees as flaws in the book. He starts by merely saying, "I have some problems with the book... I don't think some of the bits are true." These problems then turn out to be monsterously significant no matter how much Dennett down plays them. Warren's book discourages scientific thinking, it argues against evolution and for intelligent design and then the book uses arguments like "don't argue with the devil, he's better at it than you," thus discouraging reason itself.

I can't say if what Dennett did was fair to Warren's book, I haven't read it, perhaps the quotes are taken out of context? I also wonder if Warren would object Dennett's ideas about teaching the "facts" of every religion to our children. If Christianity is true it should be able to stand on it’s own two feet when compared with other religions. I suspect Warren thinks he has studied other religions enough, but I'll bet it was a heavily spun "Christian" education in the "facts" of other religions that Warren got. I expect him to be as ignorant of other religions as he is ignorant of the theory of evolution.

Dennett doesn't have to explain much about the problems he sees in Warren's book because the TED audience is already clued in. This isn't the first time Dennett has spoke at TED. It was, I think, Rick Warren's first time at TED, and maybe his last. I've only found this one 2006 TEDtalk by Warren and I'm not sure he will return for another.

The heart of Warren’s message, which is that you can find purpose (and meaning and significance) in helping people, was not harmed by Dennett's talk, in fact, Dennett commended Warren for that part. Yet, if you think about the implications of what Dennett has said in the past, and hinted at here by reminding us of viral memes and the lancet fluke, certain aspects of Warren's religion still have that "fluke-like" quality of hijacking another organism for the benefit of the fluke.

When Dennett first talked about viral memes and lancet flukes the most comparable religious phenomena at the top of everyone's mind were the Islamic, Jihadist hijackers who crashed planes into the twin towers on 9/11. Just like the ant after its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke, the Jihadists did something suicidal for the benefit of another "organism," if we can think of a religion as a kind of cultural super-organism.

However the ant that climbs a blade of grass and waits to get eaten does so in order to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or cow in order to complete the reproductive cycle of the parasite. But what good did the Jihadists do for their religion? Maybe when such suicidal and combative behavior helped spread the religion it did some good, but it is more likely a maladaptive behavior now. The net result was the Taliban will likely be destroyed and that much damage has been done to Islam's reputation.

Dennett actually thinks that religion often serves a useful social and cultural function by bringing out just the kind of behaviors that Rick Warren wanted to preach on. Religion survived and spread because it was, at least at one time, an aid to survival. This is religion as a product of evolutionary psychology, based on aspects of human nature favored by natural selection over many thousands of years.

Religious people were favored by natural selection, and let's not forget artificial selection since heretics could get burned, because the religious tended to survive better. Religion is not so much parasitic, but rather symbiotic, conferring advantages on those who are infected. Recall how Dennett ended his earlier talk about the ant and the lancet fluke:

And, as with germs, the trick is not to try to annihilate them. You will never annihilate the germs. What you can do, however, is foster public health measures, and the like, that will encourage the evolution of avirulence. That will encourage the spread of relatively benign mutations of the most toxic varieties.

Dennett seems to consider Warren one of the more benign mutations of religion and not the most toxic type. In some respects I think he's right. Warren seems to be the up and coming new voice for the evangelical movement in politics and so far he isn't as bad as the old guard were, by that I mean people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. After seeing that both Obama and McCain showed at Warren's Saddleback church for what was essentially the first presidential debate and how friendly Warren got with each candidate I'm pretty sure Warren will become as much, if not more so, a fixture in future politics as Falwell and Robertson ever were. It looks like for those who care about politics we're going to have to start watching this guy carefully.

Here is Rick Warren's TEDtalk:

Working backward through Warren's talk, and not being as gracious and polite as Dan Dennett, I note how at the end Warren seems to shift away from the standard Christianity I was raised with. I think it's Warren's version that is more unbiblical than the version I rejected. In what verse of scripture did Jesus teach any of what Rick Warren was telling the people at TED? Warren says things like, "God smiles when you be you," and, "God gets pleasure watching you be you." (But, of course, it's not about you.) Did anyone ever ask, "is God smiling down on Dan Dennett when Dan is being the ultra atheistic Dan Dennet?" Did God wire Dan Dennett to be an atheistic philosopher?

When the ancients were building the Tower of Babel to "make the world a better place," was God smiling down on them and thinking how happy he was about that tower? If he was, then why destroy the tower and confuse their languages? Was God smiling down on the people he destroyed with a world-wide flood? The God of the Bible seems very unhappy with people just being people and doing things like worshiping golden calves or preaching the wrong gospel. Is he smiling down at all the people he condemns to hell because they were being what they were wired to be?

The symbolism of "what's in your hand" seems to be the kind of loose metaphoric, symbolic thinking that allows a believer to find whatever they want to be believe in the Bible. Then you can more easily cherry pick it and stretch it into all sorts of new shapes and meanings.

And is it about trying to be good, or is it about actually being good? I ask because I suspect that people like Tomás de Torquemada, the first Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition was trying to do good. President Bush was probably trying to do good when he authorized unlawful interrogation methods. If you think you can do good without spending a lot of time learning about how the world and people really work you're deeply misguided.

Then there were the odd comments like "I never met a pastor in it for the money." Well, I guess that Rick Warren never met Peter Popoff, Robert Tilton or Benny Hinn (which is actually quite probable since Warren isn't yet a televangelist or Republican and so he isn't hanging with that crowd). However, I wonder if when Rick Warren does met the other rich preachers whether he'd be able to tell if they are in it for the money. Then there was that old and moldy line, "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist" (even Kirk Cameron used that line) and even a hint at Pascal's Wager, "Everybody is betting their life on something."

As far as the whole concept of a "purpose driven" life goes, it strikes me that the idea of some singular purpose is flawed from the get go. Human beings have more than one purpose, and none of them require any God or religion. Today I'm writing this blog post and even this act serves multiple purposes. On one level I'm sharing information in the hopes of educating others, on another level I'm doing this for myself, educating myself about how the world and people work, on another level I'm trying to get noticed by lots of people because I want to write professionally, for money. I don't have to succeed in each purpose or goal to gain something that way.

Perhaps what Warren is really talking about is some supposed "cosmic purpose" for human life. However, whatever Warren means, this is obviously where the "brain hijacking" that Dennett's metaphor describes takes place. This is where, because it's not about you, your goals are subverted into achieving the goals of the social organism, the religion.

When Warren gives a million dollars to the poor, the AIDS victims, whatever, those people will remember it was also his religion which he claims instructed him to do it. That religion will then be deemed valuable to the person helped. Look around at the hospitals, the soup kitchens, asylums etc.. You will see many are Baptist Hospitals, Methodist Hospitals, Jewish Hospitals, Catholic Hospitals, etc., etc. "Where are the Atheist's hospitals?" many ask. There are rebuttals to that loaded question, but there is also a grain of truth to it. Religions often actively promote their good works loudly, they've been doing that since before Christianity existed. In ancient Egypt we find they left, in their tombs, resumes of a sort to provide their gods with information about the good deeds of the dead. They give us information on what the ideal for ethical values was perceived to be, even if this ideal was not always achieved. Protecting the weak, giving bread to the hungry, respecting parents, etc., all the supposed good Jesus would have preached was believed to be good by the Egyptians too, and it was also done for the gods sakes.

In ancient cultures, religion and medicine and charity were more heavily linked. The earliest known institutions that attempted to provide health care were Egyptian temples. Greek temples dedicated to the healer-god Asclepius might admit the sick, who would wait for guidance from the god in a dream. The Romans adopted this system also.

Part of what we have here is an image issue, or a propaganda issue, who puts out the humanitarian efforts? Do they come more from religious faith? Is it one of the positive fruits of a good religion? It may not convince you to believe in Christianity to know that Rick Warren gives 90 percent of his money to charity, but it may motivate you to, as Dan Dennett has said before, believe in belief.

It's not just the minds of believers that are hijacked, if you pay taxes and you're an atheist, then your money is hijacked too by things like the faith-based initiative program. These programs funnel federal tax dollars to local religious groups to help them provide services to the poor, to addicted persons and to others in need of support and religion gets the credit even though you, a non-believer, helped pay for it.

In spite of the religious label, most religious hospitals are more public than most people realize. They get revenue from Medicare, Medicaid, county appropriations, investments, and only a small part from charitable contributions that are not necessarily religious. While the 90 percent of Warren's book sales given to charities will, I imagine, do much good it is in the end a drop in the bucket compared to all the charity that goes down in this world and I don't think Warren will become another Norman Borlaug.

It's not too hard to name two atheists who have both given more than Rick Warren; Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Warren Buffet is the world’s second richest man and he gave $31 billion (not million) to Bill Gates' "Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation." However, I don't think either of them is giving 90 percent... maybe, what else can you do with tens of billions of dollars? Even if Gates and Buffet did give more than 90 percent they probably aren't living like Rick Warren, driving an old car, not taking a salary and such.

The point of all that is that Rick Warren's charity isn't really that impressive to me, and neither is the history of religion as a charitable institution nor Rick Warren's idea about purpose, meaning and significance being found in what we can do for others.

What does interest me, what even impresses me, is how Rick Warren has used his book and life style to become the newest big voice in evangelical politics. Even Dan Dennett is trying to be nice to the guy. While he isn't endorsing any candidates yet (as far as I can tell) he is shaping the opinions of both in ways I don't like. But I'll say more about that in a later post.

Questions to think about in the meantime are how Rick Warren tries to understand the nature of the world in which we are living. Does he see it as a world of miracle, magic and divine intervention, not a world of order, natural law and precise mathematical formulas that will enable us to predict with a degree of accuracy the evolutionary pathways of AIDS, poverty and political decisions? He may know that we can send spacecraft to the moon and to the planets because we know the laws by which such things as motion and gravity operate, but does he know that we also have insight into the problems we all want to solve?

Will Rick Warren carry forward the same misunderstandings and mistakes that have led to things like abstinence-only sex education and suppressing information about birth control. Will he, just like the Christian right of yesterday, take life as an absolute regardless of the consequences. Regardless of the life of the mother? Regardless of the quality of life Terry Schiavo did not have?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dealing with the abysmal ignorance

If you ever get into debates with Christians and/or creationists you're soon going to come up against all kinds, there are sophisticated bullshit artists who will redefine all the terms in ways you don't recognize any more, religion no longer refers to a set of dogmatic beliefs about the supernatural, instead it becomes "a world view" and Karl Giberson can make a case that science is becoming a religion. God is no longer the specific entity described by the Bible or Koran, but rather either deistic or an even more nebulous concept like Paul Tillich's "ground of all being." Such debates become semantic games.

On the other side of the spectrum you'll find such abysmal levels of ignorance that there is nowhere you can even imagine where to begin educating them. This YouTube video clip perfectly illustrates this level of ignorance, meet Francis Collins' worst nightmare; Kirk Cameron's abysmal ignorance of evolution:

The video clip is from an old Nightline debate between two people from the Rational Response Squad, Kelly and Brian, and Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron from "Way of the Master."

When Kirk Cameron first pulled out his crazy animal pictures, the "Crocoduck," "bullfrog" and "sheepdog," during the debate and claimed that "evolutionists had been searching for these animals for hundreds of years" I thought it would be part of some joke, but it wasn't. He was serious and he was telling a bald-faced lie (there are no scientists searching for those creatures and never had been). His joke had no punchline. Kelly and Brian seemed to watch in shock and horror, unable to comprehend Kirk's level of ignorance.

Then when Brian made the point that "we are all transitional forms" the moderator himself demonstrated his own incredible ignorance of the concept of "transitional forms."

Kelly and Brian stumbled around, unprepared to deal with such abysmal ignorance, and they never quite got a handle on where to begin educating these three moronic Christians (including the moderator apparently). Brian took on Kirk's attempt to separate macro and micro evolution by saying, "how do you avoid walking a mile by taking small steps?" Alas, Kirk and Ray didn't seem to be able to get their heads around that point and just dodged it. Kirk could have refuted the question by answering, "by walking around in circles," or "by taking a small step back for every step forward," but he didn't even understand the point well enough to say that. He blanked out.

The problem seems to be that neither Brian nor Kelly fully grasped how misinformed the three Christians were about what a transitional form was. The three Christians, especially the moderator, seemed to be under the impression that adult animals can mutate, that an individual animal, a full-grown organism, somehow changes from one form into another form. Animals actually do change form, a baby changes into a man, a caterpillar into a butterfly, but that's not evolution - that's development.

One misconception these Christians have derives from comicbooks, not science. They involve scenarios like Spiderman, X-Men and the Fantastic Four, in which something happens to an individual, causing them to change (or "mutate") into something else. A different misconception ignorant people have is that mutations occur in DNA, and are inherited genetically, but they change everything about the organism rather than affecting just one trait (not the small steps Brian was talking about). Brian aimed his argument at someone with a misconception based on an incomplete understanding of genetics and molecular biology, but he was really dealing with the misconceptions of comicbook evolution and so failed to communicate.

Kelly got closer when she pointed out that a crocoduck couldn't breed with anything else, but they were both still stumbling, unable to grasp just how badly the three Christians misunderstood evolution.

Now, I don't want to fault Kelly and Brian, it took my brain a long time to bubble up an insight into what exactly was wrong Kirk's and Ray's conception of evolution. If I were in that debate situation I wouldn't have put the clues together fast enough to point it out in a debate. I probably would have said something like, "Kirk, you are a bald-faced liar if you really mean to tell us that scientists are looking for crocoducks. Scientists know there should be no such thing as a crocoduck. What I want to know is if you are trying to make a joke or if you are really that stupid?"

That probably would not have been a good thing to say. When debating it's best if you can manage to care about people and not attack them, just educate them, as Brian demonstrated. I probably would have failed to do that. Still, instead of Brian saying that Kirk was "ignorant" it might have been better to point out that Kirk could not have passed a high school biology course. That would have put Kirk's ignorance into context and invited high school biology teachers to involve themselves. Kirk seems to have gotten educationally deprived by being a child actor.

Another thing you'll note in the above video is Kirk claiming that a horse cannot produce a non-horse. In at least one respect that is a false statement. A horse can produce a non-horse if it mates with a donkey.

Mules and hinnies are the offspring of horses and donkies. Hinnies are the offspring of a male Horse (stallion) and a female donkey (jenny). The hinny and mule are usually sterile.

Wikipedia will explain more about this:

Horses and donkeys are closely related but they are different species if one uses a reproductive definition of species. Their close relationship allows them to mate and produce the hybrid mule or hinny, but since they are not quite the same species the hybrid mule or hinny is most often sterile, especially the male mules. Sometimes, though rare, a female hinny can still mate with a horse or donkey and produce offspring. It is an example of how species slowly separate. It is evolution in action. A few thousand years down the road and it is likely that mules and hinnies will disappear as horse and donkey genetics drift into more incompatibility.

That fact, if you can keep which breeding match ups result in which animals straight (I couldn't in my first draft of this post and shonny caught my error), might have been a better entry point into educating and communicating with Kirk and Ray. I say "might" because I don't know. Odds are nothing you could say would ever convince them because their reasons are are deeply emotional and not rational. I can only say the clues in that video clip tell me the three Christians all seem to have a comicbook misconception of evolution. You can only find out for sure by asking them more questions about evolution. You'll have to experiment with these things by getting out there in the chat-rooms and forums to argue with creationists and finding out for yourself what works and what doesn't.

Not on this video clip was another statement made by Kirk Cameron in the introductory material where Kirk claimed that he was once like Kelly and Brian. Kirk's arguments proved that this statement is not true. Kelly and Brian have at least a high school knowledge of evolutionary biology and of science in general. Kirk and Ray do not. Brian and Kelly could never see things the way Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron do and will probably never be believers. No magic ritual or opening of their hearts to God could take away the knowledge they have. Kirk's mistake; he never lead a normal life and he probably doesn't realize how much education he missed out on while he was working as a child star.

Way too many Christians, however, have a childish, comicbook ignorance of evolution, certainly those who write comicbooks. I think a lot of educated people would be shocked to find out how many. It's not just child actors and Christian home-school victims, high school biology itself seems to be failing to give students a basic knowledge of evolution.

And when you look into the abyss of ignorance, the abysmal ignorance looks back into you.

In case you don't think Ray and Kirk were really serious about "crocoduck," check out this recent post on Ray Comfort's blog: "The Berkley Experts."

Ray Comfort calls Tiktaalik a "crocafish" and then claims that since the article he read claims that "Tiktaalik is technically a fish, complete with scales and gills — but it has the flattened head of a crocodile and unusual fins" it is really just a fish and not a transitional form.

Of course, the article Ray Comfort read, but which Ray fails to say anything about, also says that Tiktaalik provides clues about a key transition in the history of life. It is a transitional form that helps show the evolutionary steps leading from one lineage to another by displaying characteristics of both the ancestral and the new lineage:

Tiktaalik, for example, had fins with thin ray bones, scales, and gills like most fish. However, it also had the sturdy wrist bones, neck, shoulders, and thick ribs of a four-legged vertebrate. Tiktaalik was specialized for life in shallow water, propping itself up on the bottom and snapping up prey. The adaptations it had for this lifestyle ended up providing the stepping stones for vertebrates to climb onto dry land — but of course, Tiktaalik was not "aiming" to evolve features for land-living. Tiktaalik was simply well-adapted for its own lifestyle and later on, many of these features ended up being co-opted for a new terrestrial lifestyle.

Not only is evidence of the transition of a form of life going from water to land, it was predicted by modern theories of evolution:

Tiktaalik is important, well-preserved, and certainly newsworthy — but it was not unforeseen. The paleontologists who found Tiktaalik went looking for it. Previous research suggested that vertebrates' invasion of land took place about 375 million years ago in a river — so Shubin and fellow researchers searched for fossils in 375 million year old rocks that had preserved a river delta ecosystem. Having studied other organisms from this water/land transition, the paleontologists knew what sort of animal they were looking for. And when they did discover Tiktaalik (after five separate expeditions to Canada), it wasn't much of a surprise: Tiktaalik had the set of characteristics that they had expected to find in such an organism. In sum, discovering Tiktaalik simply confirmed many of the hypotheses biologists had held for a long time regarding the origin of terrestrial vertebrates. So although Tiktaalik didn't revolutionize anyone's thinking in this area, it does play an important role in moving science forward. Biologists can now capitalize on this knowledge to elaborate their hypotheses (about, for example, why vertebrates moved onto land), to make other predictions, and to discover more transitional forms: huge tracts of rock from this era remain unexplored and ripe for paleontological prospecting.


Ray Comfort asks "Why do Females Exist?"

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Pascal’s Wager and Scare Tactics

Skatje Myers posted some thoughts on Pascal’s Wager and the discussion of it in the comments section got me thinking about the Sci-Fi Channel Reality Television Series called Scare Tactics.

Note: The rest of this post was re-written and transfered to a Hub article.
Click the link below to read it:

In the future I will be transferring more of my posts over to the Hub and only providing summaries and introductions here.