Thursday, April 2, 2009

A youtube atheist: coughlan666

The response to my request for atheist youtube videos was pathetic. I got only one comment, so far, from John Morales who suggested Non-stamp collector's youtubes. Compared to the response I got from my request for music, which got 27 comments from 15 different people commenting on the post, and more importantly some very interesting music, it was pretty lame. The atheist youtube videos I've been linked to were not as interesting as the music.

I've now given people about an equal period of time and made roughly the same number of announcements on other forums and blogs (PZ Myers' site, James Randi's site and Richard Dawkins site), to justify the comparison. It perhaps indicates that more atheists are interested in sharing their favorite music than in sharing their favorite atheist youtubes? Either that, or no one, not even other atheists, are all that impressed by atheist youtubers.

Next time I'm going to ask for atheist blogs. I suspect I'll get a better response. Atheist arguments work better in writing than in videos. If you're going to do videos, especially ones where all you do is look into your camera and rant you're going to need something more. My featured youtuber, coughlan666, has it.

While I only got one blog comment I did get a few more responses on James Randi's forum and it was there where TX50 suggested Richard Coughlan, also known as coughlan666. After checking out only a few of coughlan666's youtubes I decided to feature him as my first find of interest. That doesn't mean I think he's better than Pat Condell or Non-stamp collector. It just means he's got something I can talk about, something intresting you might need if you're going to do rants on video. He has an emotional quality that makes him involving and empathetic to watch. On that level, his strongest video here is the last one in this post. His arguments aren't really that good, but they're far more emotionally involving than better arguments you might read on a blog where our emotional reactions are hidden. I'll point out some of Coughlan's lapses in reasoning and then show you where you can find a blogger making a more coherent argument to illustrate this point.

The first thing that struck me about coughlan666 was the thought, "Holy shit! It's a real life Baltar!" He looks a bit like Baltar, he sounds like Baltar and his attitude should have been that of the first season, or miniseries, Baltar. It would have made Baltar a more interesting character if he had some of these emotional reactions to people. So, Battlestar Galactica fans, think of coughlan666 as what the Baltar character could have been like.

Let's start with Coughlan's rant against other atheists, both TX50 and coughlan666 seem to be agreeing that atheist youtubers are not doing impressive work. In fact, calling coughlan666 a youtube atheist will probably piss him off. Here's his rant against atheists. Some of it would even apply to me:

I've been guilty of repeating that "if atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color" line myself. The first time I heard it I thought it was a great line. It was, but now it's a cliche that does, indeed, get repeated too often. I will never use it again. However, the claim "atheism is just another religion" is made, sometimes by Christians who will insist that Christianity is not a religion, far more often than the retort. I've seen variations on that "bald is a hair color" retort too: If atheism is a religion, then health is just another disease, if atheism is a religion, then off is a TV channel, if atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby (also a cliche now), if atheism is a religion, then not playing football is a sport, if atheism is a religion, then a dolphin is a fish (won't work with most young Earth creationists who probably think dolphins are fish)...

It's not that you can't define the absence of something as simultaneously being the presence of that thing, because atheism is only the lack of god-belief not of religion. There are apparently atheist Buddhists. Not all religions require a belief in God. It's just sloppy thinking. They're using the word "religion" in a way that is too broad. You might say that atheism is another "world view" and get closer to the truth, but even then it's not a "world view" either, it's just an aspect of some world views.

Where I think coughlan666 goes off track is thinking that because someone introduces a comment with "well, as an atheist, I think..." or "I'm an atheist" it means that they define themselves in only that way. I am an atheist, yes, that's relevant to a lot of discussions if the subject being talked about is religion, gods, spirituality, transhumanism, Battlestar Galactica (it turned out to be a very religious show) or life after death, it's an important bit of information and very relevant. I'm also an artist and when I did my hub page on my art I never said anything about my lack of religious beliefs. When I recently set up a site on Kompoz for showing people some of my weird music and composing with others I never said anything about my atheism. It just wasn't relevant in that context.

A person's atheism or religion is only relevant when you choose to talk about certain subjects and it would seem to be those subjects that Coughlan talks about most. In fact, I've seen few youtube posts from him that don't talk about his atheism in some form. He has chosen to talk about it more consistently than I do on this blog. Atheism is important to both of us, it is the dark truth about this world that few people can face. It may not be scaling Everest, but accepting atheism is rare enough that it's noteworthy. However, I must note one remarkable exception where Coughlan puts the subject of his own atheism aside and there may be more (I haven't seen all his videos). But do any of his regular listeners have any idea what music or art Coughlan likes? As far as I can tell this is a typical example of one of his youtube videos:

What you'll see in the above video is the start of a recurring theme with Coughlan youtubes; he flounders and gets frustrated over a basic epistemology question. In this case Coughlan is reacting to Jason's "try to believe" and "chose to believe" statements and pointing out how he just can't chose to believe something, it doesn't work. He acts constipated and grunts as if he is trying to believe something. I liked it, it was kind of funny, but was it an effective argument?

Some more subtle and effective arguments, I think, would be Dan Sewell's "The Choice to Believe," Debunking Christianity's "Impossible to Believe," and Sam Harris used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to do an experimental exploration of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty at the level of the brain.

Harris found that the final acceptance of a statement as "true," or its rejection as "false," seemed to rely on primitive, hedonic processing in the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. That means that we do, as Coughlan said, have no choice in our reaction on first encountering a proposition, things thought true will please us, things we think false can disgust us and the reaction is involuntary. However, that's only in the short term.

Every atheist I know has dealt with the question and the clearest example of why they do is the popularity of "Pascal's Wager." A lot of Christians use the modern, stripped down and distorted version that goes something like this: "Since you can't know if God exists, you should believe God exists anyway because then you'll get the rewards religion promises and if you're wrong and God doesn't exist then you haven't lost anything." The problem with that statement is that you have to be insane to make it work. If not insane, you have to have zero epistemological ground rules and no standard of telling truth from lies and delusions. Sane people do not decide to believe things because they want to believe them or because they find some advantage in believing them. Sane people reserve judgment until enough evidence is found to be convincing.

If you want to trim Pascal's Wager down to essentials it would be better to say: "Since you can't know if God exists, you should act as if God existed anyway because then you might get the rewards religion promises and if you're wrong and God doesn't exist then you haven't lost much." That would be closer to what Pascal was saying. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal was a lot more sophisticated in his understanding of beliefs than the modern evangelicals and fundamentalists we deal with.

"Acting as if" is not quite the same thing as "believing," though it might lead to believing eventually. Pascal didn't tell people to just believe things, he told them to try and convince themselves. He wrote:

"Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you-will quiet your proudly critical intellect..."

What Pascal knew was that even our most rational convictions are build on flimsy foundations, limited human experience, trusted sources that might not be trust worthy, a history of ever changing scientific theory, and when it came to questions about things so far beyond our limited human experience as God, it would require either faith and trust in those books and people who made such claims, or an experience so far outside what we've already experienced that we might be convinced.

In this sense, Coughlan is a bit wrong in saying "I can't chose to believe something." Sure, you can't snap your fingers and change your beliefs, but you could start moving in a direction where belief becomes easier. That protesting bit of rationality and common sense is a lot easier to quiet than Coughlan lets on and his request for "something new" might be more dangerous than he thinks. I've seen it happen. Case in point, the Derren Brown "Messiah" youtubes linked here, or what happens to people on Sci-Fi Channel's "Scare Tactics."

Derren Brown was able to show how easily people can be fooled into believing things that aren't true by getting a group of atheists together and telling them he could give them an experience of God with just a touch. Sure enough, he touches a couple of them and they start reporting subjective experiences they think might be God. In a sense that was a "choice" those "atheists" made.

Fear will apparently override common sense as is often demonstrated on the Sci-Fi Channel show "Scare Tactics." On that show victims fall for the most absurd pranks, horror movie scenarios that they've certainly seen on TV by the time they're pranked. However, while the victims are indeed afraid, while they "act as if" it were true, no one ever commits to the belief entirely. No one picks up a club and tries to kill the murderer. They never make the extreme choices that someone entirely convinced would make. (It's a phenomena you'll see in many Christians.)

Next time you read one of my posts on Ray Comfort, imagine me reacting to Ray the same way that Coughlan is reacting to VenomFangX in this next video:

There's that recurring theme again, this time he floundered and got frustrated over the epistemology question implied by VenomFangX's claim that "naturalism refutes itself." He can't even decipher what VenomFangX means. It might help to know that VenomFangX stole that argument from Dr. William Lane Craig who stole it from C.S. Lewis, who stole it from G. E. Moore, and all three present it better than VenomFangX's garbled version but it is still flawed and it has been refuted.

Let's deal with this next video fast because I've saved the best for last. All the previous stuff has been a set up, and so is this one:

Just keep in mind that little insight from the above youtube about "why is it you guys always want to save us from the fire pits of hell and not the joys and wonders of heaven? You know what that tells me, it tells me you're a believer out of fear," it ties in nicely with this next video, the best of the lot:

Most of the anger and sarcasm has faded in the above video, and just like with Ray Comfort, what initially seemed funny suddenly becomes incredibly sad and tragic.

I think I'll shut up now and just let you think about what you've just heard.

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