Can I just be the 5 millionth person to say, “Eeewwww!”

Possummomma, being a parent, has quite a lot to say about this:

I know I haven’t commented much on the recent FLDS raid or its subsequent fallout, particularly as it’s practically a local occurrence. Mainly, my reaction was just to shake my head. It now appears that the state was completely punk’d, at least as far as that original phone call that led to the raid, now widely considered a hoax, is concerned. And the state’s draconian approach to its raid — simply to swoop down and haul everybody off without much at all in the way of a preliminary investigation — has led to its humiliation following the court’s recent ruling that the raid was just all kinds of wrong.

On the other hand, what clearer evidence do you need that pedophiliac sickness was part of these people’s standard operating procedure than the above photographs, showing übercreep Warren Jeffs smooching one of his child brides? I mean, it just makes you ill to look at it.

Something clearly has to be done to put the kibosh on these little cults that victimize children — as yes, you can call what you do “spiritual marriage” all you like, but all you’ve done is concoct a spiffy metaphor for “rape” — and shield themselves from repercussions by saying “But it’s our religion!” But the state’s raid wasn’t the right one. And you just know the FLDS will simply see this as a vindication of their way of life in opposition to the Satanic government that seeks to oppress and criminalize them. What to do?

Yes, I know, it’s been rather quiet

That’s because it’s been a rather busy last week or so for me. But I can announce at least one exciting thing to look forward to in June, which is that I am, in fact, attending The Amaz!ng Meeting 6 in Vegas!

Last year’s meeting was an experience I’ll always remember (and you can read my reports about it — which I sadly didn’t get to complete fully, but still — here), not just listening to such fantastic speakers as Phil Plait, Scott Dikkers, Neil Gershenfeld, Mike Shermer, Lori Lipman Brown, Adam Savage, Penn & Teller, plus South Park dudes Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but also getting to meet and chat with Phil, Richard Wiseman, and old Randi himself. This year, guys like Shermer, Savage and Wiseman are back, while PZ will be one of the speakers and the keynote address is given by none other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson! Yes, I’ll be blogging the whole conference once more, with photos.

It’s an expensive vacation to take, especially in this year of soaring gas (and everything else) prices, but it’s one I’ll try never to miss, as it’s simply too fantastic to get to hang out with such a great group of skeptics, scientists and thinkers from all over the world in one spot. Onward to Lost Wages!

The cost of abandoning reason is measured in lives

From the news today:

A group of up to 300 young men killed 11 people who were accused of being witches and wizards in western Kenya, in some cases slitting their throats or clubbing them to death before burning their bodies, officials said….

“The villagers are complaining that the (suspected) wizards and witches are making the bright children in the community dumb … These (suspected) witches are not doing good things to us,” Makori told The Associated Press.

Deputy police spokesman Charles Owino said that the gang hunted down the eight women and three men in the western Kenya villages of Kekoro and Matembe. Most of the victims were over the age of 70, Owino said.

A typical amateur apologist’s mistake: atheism requires omniscience

This thread is generating lots of comments, mostly in the form of an amusing ongoing exchange with our old pal Rhology, who’s going all postmodern and solipsistic on us in a frankly bizarre bid to deny that requiring evidence for claims is rational. But this comment from a reader named Jay contains a very basic mistake that Christians make when trying to argue with atheists, and so I thought I’d top-post it as a kind of counter-apologetics primer. My response in full follows. Jay declares:

Ok Martin,evoultion does not require you know how the universe was created, but atheism does… Unless you can prove how the universe was created and in doing so also disprove there is a God, then atheism is not rational.

Yes, I know, we all thought arguments that silly had gone the way of Pascal’s Wager and Ray Comfort’s banana. Alas, we find people who are new to this whole debating thing who still think they’re brilliant stumpers they can whip out like an “Instant” card in Magic The Gathering, to counter your atheist mojo. Sorry, not so fast.

Atheism is simply a statement of disbelief concerning the existence of gods. It does not require knowledge of how the universe was created any more than disbelief in leprechauns requires you to know why rainbows exist.

(In the case of rainbows, of course, we do know why those occur, but a person would not have to know this in order to disbelieve in leprechauns.)

Jay’s second sentence is the fallacy of shifting the burden of proof. The statement assumes the truth of its conclusion, to wit, that God exists because atheists cannot prove God does not exist. The flaw in this argument is glaringly obvious simply by a slight edit to what Jay wrote.

Unless you can prove how the universe was created and in doing so also disprove there is a Flying Spaghetti Monster, then a-spaghetti-monsterism is not rational.

Literally any mythical being can be substituted for “God” in Jay’s statement. So it’s a fallacious argument rooted in a false premise.

The burden of proof for a claim always rests upon the person claiming the existence of the thing in question. There is no such burden upon those who take the skeptical view. If someone wishes to tell me that fairies live in his backyard, it is not my obligation to prove to him that they don’t, it is his to prove to me that they do. If he fails, I will not believe in his fairies. Similarly, not knowing precisely how the universe was created does not preclude someone saying, “I don’t believe the cause was the Biblical God or any other god, including Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, because I don’t think there is adequate evidence for it.”

When it comes to questions with as-yet-unknown answers, such as exactly how the universe originated, we admit the limitations of our knowledge and look at the whole mystery as a compelling subject for ongoing study. We’re not inclined simply to place our ignorance on an altar and call it “God.”

Remember Expelled?

You know, the flop creotard propaganda movie that, after 5 weekends in theaters, has only scraped up a sad $7.5 million? (In a comparable time frame, TBN’s 1999 cheesefest The Omega Code had done $8.2m, and tickets were cheaper then.) Didn’t think so. Well, PZ reports today that the ill-begotten and unlucky movie’s latest misfortune is that the judge hearing the case Lennon v Premise Media has ruled to continue the injunction against the film. EMI has also sued Premise over the film’s unauthorized use of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Premise’s claim that the inclusion of the song constitutes “fair use” seems a rather feeble thing, considering they properly licensed all the other songs that also appear in the film. Stupid is as creationism does, you know. This movie, as one of PZ’s commenters points out, could very well go down as the Reefer Madness of the 21st century.

Islam is evil, Part ∞

Note I didn’t say Muslims, I said Islam. Don’t lecture me about all the nice Muslims. I used to live in Dubai and met more of them than you ever will. But any religion whose extremism is capable of the following has no place in a modern, civilized world, full stop.

The suspect, who is unshaven and appears to be in his 20s or 30s, was arrested by Iraq security forces after they retook most of Basra in April.

CNN was shown what authorities say was his first confession. On it are the names of 15 girls whom he admitted kidnapping, raping and killing. The youngest girl on the list was just 9 years old….

Women bore the brunt of the [Shiite] militias’ extremist ideologies. The militants spray-painted threats on walls across Basra, warning women to wear headscarves and not to wear make-up. Women were sometimes executed for the vague charge of doing something “un-Islamic.”

In the wasteland on the outskirts of Basra, dotted with rundown homes, the stench of death mixes with the sewage. Local residents told the Iraqi Army that executions often take place in the area, particularly for women, sometimes killed for something as seemingly inocuous as wearing jeans.

Chuck Colson’s dubious prison statistics

I am saving up material to discuss with Chuck Colson, but I couldn’t wait on this bit. While reading his new book, The Faith, I came across a passage in which he touted the great success of his prison ministry. In a chapter called “Truth,” Colson writes:

“The only thing the god of tolerance hates more than Christians making truth-claims is Christians proving them. Beginning with a facility in Houston, Prison Fellowship now runs residential programs, ‘spiritual boot camps,’ within prisons in locations scattered across the country. This is called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative — or IFI. We have, since the beginning, contended that these demonstrate the truth of the Gospel in transforming lives. University of Pennsylvania researchers reported that IFI graduates had an 8 percent re-incarceration rate versus 20 percent in a comparable control group (and 67 percent nationally). Prison officials were astounded.”

Maybe they were astounded by the audacity with which Colson trumps up statistics.

I remembered discussing this on “The Non-Prophets” years ago, and had a vague memory that there was something fishy about these numbers. Like, for instance, people who start the program but then drop out were not counted, and when you factor this in, there is actually a HIGHER recidivism rate (the percent of them who return to prison) than average. It’s old news, but I had a hard time calling back the details.

Still, I imagined bringing this point up with Colson, and he would probably say: “Of course I am not responsible for prisoners who do not finish my program. They didn’t really get the faith. But look at the wonderful results based on people who did finish!”

I looked up the story on this, and I found out that it’s much worse than even I remembered. Here’s the story:

Faith-Based Fudging

Actually, not only do they not count people who didn’t finish the program in prison… they actually discount many of the people who did go through the entire program. This is pretty astounding, but here it is:

If you don’t get a job after you leave prison, you are not counted as a graduate.

Unbelieveable. In order to get these results, their own study was cherry picking a reduced set of people who have already achieved a measure of success — getting a job after leaving prison — and then they claimed credit for it!

Think about it. If you were to simply take a master list of all prisoners who get out of jail, regardless of whether they attended Colson’s “boot camp” or not, and then you only counted the ones who managed to get a job, then of course they would have a much lower tendency to go back to jail. If they have a job and money, there is less need for them to commit more crimes.

I’m almost surprised that Colson doesn’t simply discount everyone who goes back to jail as a “graduate.” Then he could claim that his graduates have a 0% recidivism rate.

I want to give Colson the benefit of the doubt and claim that he simply is not aware of the error in his method. But this study has been out for five years. Furthermore, in the very next paragraph, he verbally assaults reverend Barry Lynn, who sued IFI. Colson’s take on this is: “To prove our truth-claims proved an outrage that tolerance could not abide.” I looked up Americans United’s page on the case. The study I just mentioned was cited as part of it.

There is, of course, not a mention of this. Not a response, not a refutation; he simply goes on repeating statistics that were shown invalid years ago.

How laughable can Christian anti-intellectualism get?

I’ve probably mentioned before that I have somehow ended up on the mailing list of the wackos at Christian Worldview Network, a group of fundies who are so hardcore they can honestly be said to be living in a different world, not only from most of humanity, but most other Christians as well. These people are old school, “turn or burn” fire-and-brimstone Biblical literalists. Their newsletters excoriate such movements within contemporary Christianity as the “emergent church,” in which pop-pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen preach like motivational speakers a form of inoffensive I’m-okay-you’re-okay soft religion that the Worldview Network crowd considers appallingly watered down. (And from a Biblical standpoint, you’d have to say they’re right. Scripture really makes it clear that God is a vindictive, hateful bastard who loves to kill people, and that refusal to accept his divine “love” will get your ass fast-tracked to hell in a turbocharged handbasket.)

Occasionally, one of their articles will catch my eye, and one titled “The Limits of Human Reason”, by some nincompoop improbably named Israel Wayne, had me chuckling the instant I saw it. In it, you will see the feeble justifications of fundamentalist misology laid bare. It’s quite obvious these are people who simply do not know how knowledge works, and their flawed (to put it politely) thinking is exactly the sort of thing that feeds the absurd rhetoric you hear from fundies who want to argue, for instance, that evolution and creationism are simply two different “worldviews” and thus both should get equal time in class.

The whole theme here is that human reason is untrustworthy because everybody’s ideas are skewed through their worldview. Bask in the following for a thoroughly riotous example of burning stupid.

For example, let’s say that you are with a team digging for dinosaur bones in Alaska. You come across some fossilized remains of a duck-billed dinosaur laying in a certain rock strata. An evolutionist on the team says, “Ah! This dinosaur is from the beginning of the Triassic period! That means this dinosaur is about 858 million years old!”

“How do you know?” you ask.

“Oh that’s easy, you can tell from the rock layers. You date the fossil by the surrounding strata.”

You turn to a creationist who is also part of the team and ask him for a second opinion.

“I’d say this dinosaur is less than 4,500 old and was probably buried during or shortly after the flood of Noah’s day.”

You scratch your head. “How can your assessment be so contrary to your evolutionary colleague?”

“Well, he is using General Revelation, and interpreting it through his worldview, which excludes Special Revelation, but I am using a mix of both observable facts and the recorded history of Someone who was around in the beginning. Namely…God.”…

So you can see that the “facts” do not always speak for themselves. Our presuppositions affect the way we perceive and interpret reality.

I’ll give you a minute to stop laughing at all of that. (A creationist part of a paleontological dig? Uh-huh.) Exactly how much absurdity can be packed into a single argument? Clearly a lot, if this is any indicator.

One tiny little detail that this dimwit Wayne is missing is that of evidence. You see, scientists don’t just find stuff in the dirt and pronounce it to be one thing or another by fiat. There are any number of ways a paleontologist would know how to identify a dinosaur bone he’s dug up, and all of them involve recourse to bodies of evidence available to the scientific community at large, gathered and collated and verified over a process of study spanning years and years.

How does a scientist know the age of the rock strata in which he’s digging? Wayne, being an idiot, thinks it’s just a wild guess the scientist pulls out of his ass, filtered through his “presuppositions” and “worldview,” whereas in reality, that strata has been subjected to a number of reliable dating techniques. (Not to mention there is a complex, advanced field of science called geology dedicated to such study.) There are probably other samples of fossils of the species unearthed already on record, too, which have been tested and dated and fit into their appropriate position in history through such advanced disciplines as cladistics, taxonomy, etc. In other words, in science, “worldview” is irrelevant and filtering your findings through whatever “presuppositions” you might have is already known to be an improper way to go about determining your findings, and is in fact why there is the whole process of peer review in the first place.

In short, science recognizes — better than this fool Wayne, to be sure — that people are prone to inaccurate, prejudiced thinking, and has self-correcting methods in place to guard against such thinking producing untrustworthy results. And these self-correcting methods are, sadly for the creationists, what keeps their pseudoscience out of the club, by catching out people who think that the purpose of science is to validate their “presuppositions” and “worldviews” in the first place.

What does the creationist have in place to ensure that he’s not off-base in his babblings about floods, a young Earth, and his god? None. (Which is why you don’t tend to see those people wasting everyone’s time out on legitimate digs either. For one thing, they wouldn’t have passed muster scientifically to qualify for such a team in the first place.) All he has are his bizarre, invented concepts like “General Revelation” and “Special Revelation,” which Wayne capitalizes as if they were actual terms referring to something real. The evolutionist in the above story could easily trounce the overconfident babbling of his creationist “colleague” simply by sending the fossil sample back to the lab to see what the evidence actually showed.

When talking about the conflict between science and faith, fundies like Wayne always leave out little details like evidence, independent confirmation of facts, concepts like falsifiability — in other words, all the proper methods of determining facts that science actually does employ. And they leave those things out because religious pseudosciences like creationism do not have those methods at their own disposal. Or, when they do employ them, the findings tend not to jibe with their precious “presuppositions.” Creos can whine all they like, but when the findings come back from the nuclear dating labs, the results of that fossil will, in fact, be 251-199 million years (the actual date of the Triassic period, not 858 million, as Wayne could easily have found out if he’d devoted two seconds to Googling the topic — or maybe such a basic fact-checking process was beyond the limits of Wayne’s reason) and not 4,500.

Time and again, Christians who want to stamp out evolutionary biology education through bogus “academic freedom” bills and what have you always come from the same false premise: that there’s no such thing as a fact, that everything is all just “worldviews” and “beliefs” and “opinions.” It’s postmodernism in a nutshell. They ignore entirely the voluminous body of work that actually exists, either out of sheer pig-ignorance or defiant contempt, and then they wonder why science is so willing to lend its support to the evolutionary “worldview” and not their invisible-magic-man-in-the-sky one. That the former is backed up by mountains of independently verifiable evidence and the latter is only backed up by an ancient holy book, lunatic conspiracy theories and petulant hand-waving is hard to get through their skulls.

Sure, facts in science are provisional, always subject to disconfirmation should compelling new evidence arise. But that is far, far different from Wayne’s asinine misrepresentation of the whole process as being one of “everyone just makes stuff up based on their worldview.” That may certainly be how religious pseudoscience does its busin
ess; it is the polar opposite of how real science goes about its own.

Can Wayne get sillier? What do you think?

Because an unconverted man has a rebellious heart, he choses to reject the clear Revelation of God. Autonomous man has listened to the voice of the serpent and cut himself off from the only certain source of truth. In our apologetic method, we must remember that we will not be able to “reason” someone into the Kingdom of God. The problem isn’t that they don’t have adequate information or reasoning capabilities, but rather they have “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

I believe in the military this is what is known as a “target rich environment.” One hardly knows where to begin.

Let’s just settle for cutting to the chase, which is that Wayne all but admits that Christian faith is an irrational process. Truth is redefined, not as that which one can confirm and verify through the scientific method, but simply as that which comes from God. A believer cannot use reason to persuade the unbeliever because reason is, in fact, a hindrance to understanding truth and not the proper method to use in its pursuit. God, we are told, gives us reason (why, since it’s so useless, he would bother is not explained, but then logical consistency is not these people’s strong suit), but ultimately the only way to know the capital-T Truth is through emotions, by cutting through to the “rebellious heart” of the unconverted man.

Well, I can only say that, if surrendering my rational mind in favor of being stupid on purpose is the only way for me to appreciate the “Truth” of Christianity’s God, then I can only wonder what possible value this “Truth” can have, given that only irrationalism will reveal it. And why would this God give us minds if, in Ben Franklin’s hilarious phrasing, he wished us to forego their use? What kind of idiotic God would bestow reason upon his creations, only to require that we dispense with it utterly in order to know the great “Truth” of his existence and our salvation? What value can such salvation have, if you have to be a moron first to receive it? Why would I want to spend eternity in Heaven surrounded by a bunch of remedial clods?

Israel Wayne has essentially handed science and atheism the whole debate here. By admitting to the open irrationalism of his religion, by freely testifying that you have to disdain reason itself, to refuse to demand evidence for claims, simply to not think at all in order to receive this “Special Revelation” into your “rebellious heart,” then he’s basically conceded his whole religion is pure emotionalism and wishful thinking, stupid from the ground up and stupid from the roof down on the other side. And if I have a “rebellious heart” towards anything, it isn’t Israel Wayne’s imaginary sky-friend. It’s the stupidity I’m told I must embrace to believe in it.

News good and bad from the British Isles

Via Dawkins’ site, I caught this article from the London Times, and its headline is a thing of such beauty it practically made me weep for joy: Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour. The article’s lead practically has you grabbing the phone to hire a marching band and sending out eVites for a block party. If only this were America.

Church attendance in Britain is declining so fast that the number of regular churchgoers will be fewer than those attending mosques within a generation, research published today suggests.

The fall – from the four million people who attend church at least once a month today – means that the Church of England, Catholicism and other denominations will become financially unviable. A lack of funds from the collection plate to support the Christian infrastructure, including church upkeep and ministers’ pay and pensions, will force church closures as ageing congregations die.

But then, read on a bit, and the other shoe drops.

In contrast, the number of actively religious Muslims will have increased from about one million today to 1.96 million in 2035.

According to Religious Trends, a comprehensive statistical analysis of religious practice in Britain, published by Christian Research, even Hindus will come close to outnumbering churchgoers within a generation.

Okay, it’s great to see one pernicious religion biting the dust somewhere, but the idea is not that we just want to see its former prominence supplanted by yet another pernicious religion…one even more pernicious, since, while Christianity’s fanatics (say, Paul Hill) only occasionally resort to outright murder, Islam’s are all too gung-ho about it. When Muslims will parade with signs that say “Behead Those Who Insult Islam!” you know you’re dealing with something far too FUBAR to be dealt with through civilized dialogue. Reason may win the fight fairly easily against Christianity, but if Islam, with its barbaric sharia laws and general bent towards theocratic fascism, simply slipped in and took its place, we’d be even worse off than where we started.

Atheists and rationalists still have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do, before the civilized world gets the message that the best way to get through life and get along with your fellow man is actually to use that little lump of grey matter between your ears.