Democrats wake up and take the SBOE debacle seriously

The first step in de-moronizing the Texas State Board of Education has begun. In past years the Democrats have ill-advisedly ignored the SBOE, preferring more high-profile races in Texas politics. But with the current board overrun by anti-science creationist wackaloons who are turning the entire state into fodder for late-night comedians, the Dems are finally extracting craniums from rectums and realizing that the neocon theocrats cannot be allowed to gang-rape the education of an entire generation of Texas students.

And so the first challengers have been announced for the 2010 elections. Democratic activist Susan Shelton has announced she will challenge walking joke Cynthia “Obama Is a Terrorist” Dunbar, and that “as many as a dozen” other Democrats are considering a run. It’s about frickin’ time.

Meanwhile, the recent, second hearing on January 21 was evidently no less packed with stupid than the first. (Note to Clare Wuellner, who emailed me urging me to participate this time: I did try to call the number you gave me, but got nothing but a dispatcher who sounded like she couldn’t hear me and kept saying, “Hello, go ahead!” until I hung up. Weird.) You know, it’s just so tiresome the way these people try to pretend, with all of their “strengths and weaknesses” code words and what have you, that their opposition to evolution education isn’t about promoting their religious agendas. And then when these hearings are held, the fools speaking out for their side put the lie to that the instant they open their idiot gobs.

Folks, we got change in 2008. Let’s get some more in ’10. Vote!

Superior Christian morality!

Ted Haggard’s back in the news. This time, it’s been revealed that his megachurch New Life knew full well of Haggard’s homosexual proclivities, and that, in addition to the gay drug-dealing male prostitute situation, they paid a 20-year-old church volunteer a bunch of hush money to keep him from telling anyone about his own assignations with Haggard. Of course, the church wants you to think it wasn’t hush money.

“This was compassionate assistance. It was to help him move forward, not a settlement to keep him quiet,” said [Brady] Boyd, senior pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Uh huh. Just some “compassionate assistance” to a young guy who happened to be in a position to embarrass the church publicly with news about some pillow biting with the pastor. Unless Boyd is implying that all of the church’s young members get “compassionate assistance” to pay their college tuition, moving expenses, and, uh, counseling, as a matter of course, and that this guy was no different than any other church member in that regard.

But wait, no, that can’t be the case, can it? Because the article also reveals that this “compassionate assistance” came as the result of a settlement between the church and the young man’s attorney.

So we have a pastor abusing his position of power for sexual favors, a church lying about the incident as well as their reasons for settling with the young man in question…gosh, it all just seems so wrong…somehow!

But wait, I forgot. I’m an atheist, and so I don’t have any valid “objective standards” for determining right or wrong. So I guess all this is okay, then. I guess it’ll just be easier if I remember the mantra: if Christians do it, it’s moral. Hey, that rationale worked for Nixon: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” Right? Right. And let’s not forget the second mantra either: Do as we preach, not as we do. Life is suddenly so much easier, isn’t it?

Smackdown of a creationist lecture

The Everything Else Atheist (disclosure: friend of mine, loyal AE viewer, and newbie blogger) just spent an evening tormenting herself by attending a lecture by “Director of Christian Apologetics” Craig J. Hazen. The talk turned out to be as awful as you could hope, but it wasn’t a total loss, as we get to enjoy the recap and take-down.

Excerpt:

He then told a story about giving evidence for the resurrection to medical students (notice his subtle transition from faith to christianity?). He told them that “Jesus was alive at point A, dead at point B, and alive at point C” and was excited to tell us that their jaws just dropped. I can tell you why their jaws dropped, it’s a stupid claim which you given no reasonable evidence for.

Federal judge to Kevin Trudeau: Grab your ankles, bitch!

This isn’t specifically atheisty, but it gives me a big 3S (skeptical schadenfreude squee) all the same. From the “Sometimes the Good Guys Win” file:

A federal judge has ordered infomercial marketer Kevin Trudeau to pay more than $37 million for violating a 2004 stipulated order by misrepresenting the content of his book, “The Weight Loss Cure ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About.”…

This scumsucking assrocket is a kindred spirit to Ben Stein in every way. Peddle a bunch of bullshit claims and sway the feeble minds of an uneducated public into thinking you’re a valiant truth-seeker, by contriving a massive conspiracy by Big Science to suppress you. And if it makes you puke to think how this con man is swimming in ill-gotten dough while millions of honest Americans are on the verge of poverty thanks to the Bush Economic Holocaust, then I’m sure this news must make your week. Go, read, bask.

Answering apologists’ questions, part 2

In our last episode, Robin had discovered the location of the secret underground lab where Commissioner Gordon has been held prisoner. Meanwhile, Woodstock played an elaborate prank on Snoopy involving Linus’s security blanket, some Elmer’s Glue, and a feather pillow, and Andy and Opie had finally found Barney Fife passed out at the fishing hole after enjoying a little too much of the whiskey he’d been ordered to confiscate from Otis. Finally, philosopher Paul Copan had contributed a sincere but naive two-part question to Lee Strobel’s list, prompting Martin once again to fire up the old Mac.

Philosopher Paul Copan: Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

Copan is a little wide of the mark in terms of what is scientifically supported about the universe’s origins. From my layman’s standpoint, let me relate my own understanding of where science is right now on that subject. Yes, the universe as we know it has a finite history, but of what came before, we know nothing. The Big Bang theory is not a creation ex nihilo theory, but simply one that describes the event that caused our universe to expand into its present form. The concept I find most plausible is that the pre-BB universe existed in a quantum state, with the BB itself a quantum event. Causal explanations are nicely disposed of here, since causality itself — indeed, most of physics if I understand it correctly — is a non-issue at the quantum level.

In short, there was never a state of nonexistence preceding the Big Bang. And quantum mechanics dispenses with the need to think of the universe as “ontologically haunted,” Copan’s poetic $20 way of saying “created by God.”

There is hardly any kind of scientific consensus on the universe being “fine-tuned for life,” a common mantra of the scientifically-minded apologist. As a scientific layman, I’d have to say, if this were in fact the case, where is all the life? That we know of, there is but one planet in all the universe bearing life (although really earnest efforts to find those elusive Martian microbes continue). I think it would be far more accurate to say that life has been fine-tuned for its environment on Earth, and that fine-tuning mechanism is evolution by natural selection.

Moreover, as physicist Victor Stenger has pointed out, if the universe were indeed created by the God of Christianity for the purpose of containing life to worship him, why would God need to “fine tune” it? For Pete’s sake, he’s supposed to be omnipotent. If all it took was an act of will in Genesis 1 to get the ball rolling, why should any “fine tuning” need to be done? I mean, they can’t even claim that this one is scripturally supported. It’s not as if Genesis says, “And finally on the seventh day, God rested, having pulled two all-nighters in a row to get the fine-tuning right.” The whole “fine tuning” argument from apologists makes it sound as if God really worked his ass off to get this darn universe just so. Again, it seems Christianity’s God is omnipotent when it’s convenient for him to be. But once science begins taking a close look at his alleged “creation,” he’s a dedicated if imperfect hard worker who’s just done the very best he can, and all of his “bad” design is in fact really “elegant” design that we puny humans are too dim to comprehend. (I’ve actually heard Hugh Ross make a pitch very like that one.)

I’d suggest Copan go off and read Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis, which addresses these matters with real expertise.

Copan continues:

And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don’t such ‘injustices’ or ‘evils’ seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?

First off, the problem of evil is a major (not necessarily the major) objection to belief in God. The major objection continues to be that whole “complete and utter absence of evidence” thing.

Certainly the concept of evil implies a concept of good. Duh. One must have a frame of reference to compare one to the other. But who came up with this concept? People, that’s who.

There is nothing in nature called “right” or “wrong.” If a rock on Mars falls off a cliff and breaks another rock, the falling rock has not done a bad thing. These are concepts that exist only in a social context, and then, only among a social species (like our own) who develop the concepts as a helpful way to ensure species survival. Throughout the millennia that civilization has been developing, humans have found it useful to codify certain behaviors as either right or wrong, based upon whether the observable consequences of those behaviors are harmful or not. And we can judge what is harmful or not by our innate empathic qualities. Seeing a person hurting triggers a hardwired response in us, because we can understand what it would be like for us to be in the same situation. And studies have shown that a tendency towards cooperative, altruistic behavior is innate in children. We’ve also observed that some of our close cousins among primates have developed ethical heirarchies themselves.

We don’t need magic men in the sky to explain why we can tell right from wrong. The development of human morality has been a stochastic process, and not always a consistent one. There are many things people one did in the past — hold slaves, marry underage girls, round up Jews and burn them alive (not talking about Nazis here, but medieval Christians) — that were considered perfectly morally acceptible, which today we’d find appalling. The idea of a single “moral/design plan” existing outside of nature that has informed our morality is simply not backed up by any understanding of history or cultural anthropology. If such a thing did exist, you’d expect not to see moral precepts radically changing from age to age and culture to culture, as they have done. While some precepts have remained consistent, many have changed and continue to change. Fifty years ago they were still lynching black men in this country, and now we’ve put one in the White House. We’re always learning.

Finally, your implications about divine “moral/design plans” not only fail to get God off the hook where the problem of evil is concerned, they merely highlight the problem. If right and wrong are in fact God-ordained concepts, then — once more with feeling — why does he allow children to get raped, thousands to die in tsunamis and earthquakes, and so on ad infinitum? Accepting the idea you want me to consider, that God is a necessary precondition for moral understanding, makes his own moral insouciance (let alone his outright evil — remember, this is a guy who will send even a child down the trapdoor to eternal Hell for not joining the Official Jesus Fan Club) a thoroughly intractible problem for the Christian to address. And we haven’t even gotten to the Euthyphro Dillemma yet.

Frank Pastore just reiterates some of Copan’s points, just in a way that accentuates his ignorance, so I’ll address him quickly.

Radio host Frank Pastore: “Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from death, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source.”

1) Nothing in science says something came from nothing. You believe a God poofed it all into place via an act of will, so could you please gi
ve a detailed description of the physical processes set in motion when God said “Let there be light”; please discuss in particular how those processes were initiated, in other words, how exactly the sound of God’s voice instantiated the matter that became our universe; and finally, the nature of the realm in which God exists, how that realm came to be, and how and when God came to be, and by what process.

Take your time.

2) Nothing in science says life came from death. Again, you are the one who believes a man was resurrected from the dead. Perhaps you can give a more coherent explanation of how this occurred than your fellow “resurrection expert” Ken Habermas.

As for life coming from non-life, that subject is abiogenesis, and you can probably Google up what actual scientists are thinking about it.

3) I believe the development of the mind is one of the many ongoing fields of study in evolutionary biology. I would not claim to know if they have all the answers in yet (and I doubt they do). But Christians all too often use that fact as an opportunity to launch the Argument from Ignorance fallacy: science hasn’t got the answers, so Goddidit. No, God doesn’t get to win by default whenever there isn’t a better scientific answer at hand (though the fact Christians so often think he does really underscores the fact that “God,” when you get right down to it, is merely a placeholder for ignorance).

How our minds evolved is not really that perplexing a mystery. Steven Pinker has an interesting interview here on the topic. We know homo sapiens had just plain bigger brains than other hominids, including those we at one point shared the planet with, like Neanderthals and homo erectus. The latter guy was a huge strapping brute, over six feet on average and built like a linebacker. But he had an itty bitty brain, and never learned, the way H. sapiens did, how to hunt together in teams to bring down the big game. In short, how our minds developed is another amazing story in our evolutionary history, and one — like all factual, scientific alternatives to religious myth — far more glorious and astonishing than the simplistic all-in-one “Goddidit” non-answer, that far too many people seem to prefer to experiencing the real wonder of our world.

4) For our moral development, see my answer to Copan above. Our morality, like everything else, evolved. It didn’t just spring wholly made from nothingness. In Pastore’s question, you really see the Either/Or Fallacy so commonly at work in Christians’ thinking. It’s like Behe’s irreducible complexity nonsense, applied to all of existence. Either God gave us morals, or somehow morals just poofed out of nothingness all by themselves (and who coould believe that?). Either God developed our minds, or they just poofed into existence from nothingness all by themselves (and who could believe that?). And so on. Questions like Pastore’s come front-loaded with their lack of understanding and misinformation, tainting the question’s very premise with errors that you have to correct before you can even address the question itself.

Okay, so that wasn’t a quick reply after all. Maybe I’ll do better with our final question.

Apologist Greg Koukl: Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?

Okay, this one will go quickly. Talk about your Either/Or Fallacies! Koukl even uses the words themselves in describing what he incorrectly thinks the only explanations are for the existence of the universe. (And indeed, what he mistakenly refers to as the “Law of Excluded Middle” is in fact another classical fallacy.)

See my answer to Copan for my thinking on the pre-Big Bang universe. It’s a reasonably well scientifically supported hypothesis that doesn’t involve either of Koukl’s alternatives, and metaphysically, it’s more sound as well. Many Christian apologists work from what Dawson Bethrick — an erudite atheist blogger I occasionally read, though I’m not an Objectivist as he is — calls a “primacy of nonexistence” metaphysics. In other words, they start from the presupposition that before the universe there had to be nothing, and since nothing can come from nothing, a God was therefore needed to create the universe. Conversely, an atheist can reasonably employ a “primacy of existence” metaphysics that takes into account the notion that there was never a period of nothingness, that there has in fact always been a universe, and that universe was in a quantum state prior to the Big Bang. Thus, existence itself becomes a causal primary. There’s no need to prove that “existence exists,” because, well, you know, here we are and all. (Unless you end up talking to a solipsist, that is, and frankly I think your time would be more productively spent tweezing your ass hairs.) And it works better with Occam’s Razor, too. It is indeed the more parsimonious explanation to think that existence exists, rather than having to come up with whole speculative realms of meta-existence — and I’d include gods in heavens alongside bubble multiverses here — just to concoct tortuous explanations for our own existence.

Okay. I think that about wraps it up for me. If anyone else has answers for Lee’s list of questioners, or corrections and enhancements to any of the answers I gave, well, that’s what comment threads are for.

Poor, poor, poor, poor, poor little Ray

Ray Comfort. The Uwe Boll of Christian apologetics.

You know, it’d be pretty easy to do a Ray Comfort Drinking Game. Just take a shot at any straw-man attack on atheists, moronic canard about evolution…

On second thought, alcohol poisoning within minutes might be a real hazard. Better not. Still, he’s worth a laugh, poor sad idiot. Notice there are no comments allowed, though. Knock me over with a feather.

America Hating Theocrats Pray For Failure

Hey everybody, let’s all pray for the failure of the new president!

Wait, you silly fundie, haven’t you heard that it is treasonous to criticize a sitting president in a time of war?

OOOOOHHHHH! I’ve been waiting to say that for a long time.

…But seriously, folks, I’d like to say a few words about partisanship.

I don’t believe in treating both sides equally. That should be clear from my consistently stated position on teaching Intelligent Design in schools (for example, in this press release that I wrote), or their latest smokescreen, euphemistically known as “academic freedom” or “teach the controversy.” There is no “controversy” other than the one raised by a tiny minority of religious goons seeking to camouflage their efforts to make political hay. Matt and I have both repeatedly said that it’s a good thing to be biased in favor of reality, and not make up reasons to criticize both sides equally. There are not really two sides to the question of whether we landed on the moon, or whether Barack Obama is secretly a reptoid. Or rather, there are two sides, but one side is clearly a bunch of idiots.

So. I’ve occasionally been accused of being a partisan hack for Obama. I don’t love everything Obama does. I have some objections to his overt religious statements, which I believe I’ve aired out on the show before. I’m not delighted with his choice of Rick Warren as a speaker yesterday. When I specifically object to some of Obama’s policies, I’ll let you know.

However, it would be a mistake to think that it reflects some sort of unthinking bias if I am less critical of this president than the previous one. Casting around for an analogy… okay, let’s talk about movies. I absolutely love Inherit the Wind. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I own the DVD, I watch it repeatedly. It is an enduring classic with great acting and a powerful message.

If presidents were movies, Barack Obama would not be Inherit the Wind. He would be… oh let’s say… Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters is a pretty good movie. It’s funny. It’s got some good performances and quotable lines. If it happened to be on TV I would probably watch it. But it’s not in the same league as Inherit the Wind.

On the other hand, the Bush presidency in my opinion has been Plan 9 From Outer Space. There’s very, very little for me to recommend it, whether we’re considering faith-based initiatives, or otherwise funneling money into organizations with evangelical ties like Blackwater, or constant lip service to the National Day of Prayer, or an aide’s snide dismissal of the “reality-based community.”

There is simply no comparison. It’s not mere partisanship that impels me to say that Barack Obama is likely to be a better president than George Bush. It’s simply that it would be hard for him to do much worse. I disagree with the new president on some of his choices, and appreciate him for others — like his straightforward acknowledgment of non-believers as part of our nation’s heritage. A minor thing, it doesn’t translate into any policy changes, but it’s something Bush would never, ever have done.

However, as with everything, I reserve the right to change my opinion when presented with new evidence. So when Obama does something clearly offensive to the atheist community, I promise you’ll hear about it from me.

Today makes me go wOOt

Hey gang. Did you hear?

George W. Bush is not the president any more! He’s gone! Out!

Everybody exhale.

That frackin’ miserable useless failure has joined the expanding ranks of our nation’s many unemployed!

We have a new guy. I like him. I have high, but realistic hopes for him. I do think there has been a bit of excess from the media hype machine about his inauguration, but I put that down to pride over the fact that the USA, with its utterly appalling history of racism, has elected a non-white president, as well as general excitement over the fact that George W. Bush is no longer the president!

I’m pleased to be living in an America where the people are excited, rather than appalled and embarrassed by, our president. But go easy on the rockstar stuff. President Obama has eight years of almost apocalyptic disaster to fix. It will take time. He will have failures as well as successes. He knows how hard a row he has to hoe. I just want all of his slathering fans supporters to know that too. The higher they build you up, the longer and harder the fall you may be in for. Just remember, Obama is a man, not a messiah. I think he stands to be a better president than most we’ve had in my lifetime. But let’s keep our heads, and stay realistic. Today’s excitement aside, tomorrow we’re back to workaday. There’s a big job ahead.

Good luck, Mr. President.

Answering apologists’ questions, part 1

A fellow emailed the TV show address with this forwarded list of questions that apologists have for atheists, taken from Lee Strobel’s site. What is surprising is how simplistic and banal many the questions are (most of them being variations of “if God didn’t create us, who/what did?”). Only one question is any good, and one is downright idiotic. You’d think these guys had never read any atheist literature in their lives. They probably haven’t, though, being apologists, you’d think that doing so would at least give them some kind of frame of reference from which to formulate good responses to atheists’ and skeptics’ criticism of religion. Or maybe they’re worried they wouldn’t be able to respond…

The following answers are my own. Readers are invited to offer their own answers in the comments.

Lee opens:

What Would I Ask an Atheist?
Hemant Mehta’s offer for me to respond to questions from atheists led me to ponder this topic: what would I ask an atheist in return? Hmmmmm. I decided to send emails to some of my friends and ask them for their suggestions. Here are their replies.

Hmmmm indeed. Here are the questions:

Apologist Mike Licona: “What turns you off about Christianity? Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?”

I’m glad this question came first, as it’s actually the first time I’ve heard a question phrased this way from any Christian. Notice Licona doesn’t ask why I don’t believe, he asks why Christianity is a turnoff. Which is quite a different matter. Licona has noticed that, apart from disbelief, there is something about religion in particular that rubs atheists the wrong way. Very astute, Mike. (Except, of course, for slipping in the mistaken attempt at equivocation with the ever-popular Christian weasel word “worldview.” Atheism is not a “worldview.” It is merely the disbelief in gods.)

I’ll take the final question first. When credible evidence for a deity comes to light — a thing theists have singly been incapable of providing — then I will doubt my atheism. This does not mean I have a closed mind towards the idea. Even when I say, with full confidence, that I don’t believe in any gods, I’m not making a dogmatic proclamation of absolute knowledge. But here, it’s like the question of leprechauns. Would I believe in leprechauns if evidence for them ever made it sensible to do so? Sure. But in the absence of such evidence, I’m quite confident in maintaining my disbelief in leprechauns. Ditto gods.

There’s nothing about Christianity troubling to my atheism, per se, so much as troubling to my humanism and ideas about goodness and decency. What turns me off about Christianity is that I consider it morally confused at best, and morally bankrupt at worst. Indeed, the Doctrine of Hell alone forever disqualifies Christianity as a moral belief system of any kind. Put bluntly, any religion that not only uses threats of eternal torture and punishment to enforce compliance, let alone considers eternal torture morally acceptable in the first place, simply for the “crime” of not being Christian, can only be considered not merely immoral but evil. Let us, for the sake of argument, say God exists. Am I to understand that this deity — said to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnific — is so insecure in his rule over his creation that he would find it necessary to consign me to eternity in hell merely for using my reasoning capacities (which he presumably gave me) to doubt his existence, especially when this God has deliberately chosen to refuse to reveal his existence unambiguously? Am I supposed to consider such a being worthy of my admiration, let alone my love and, most incredibly, my worship?

I often ask people who call the television show to imagine an abusive spouse, who tells his wife the following: “Honey, I love you with all my heart. But I swear, if you ever leave me, if I ever even think you’re looking at another man or thinking about breaking up with me, so help me, I’ll break your neck!” Now, is this a man you’d introduce your lady friends to? Is this someone you’d consider, not only a good man, but the best and most moral kind of man possible? No? But look closely. This man is your God. Don’t worship him to his satisfaction, don’t accept the divine love he so generously offers you, and go directly to hell, boom, no passing “Go” or collecting the proverbial two Benjamins.

Honestly, can you really be so clueless as to why Christianity turns atheists off, when it offers such an appalling deity for our devotion?

The immorality of Christianity doesn’t stop there. This is a religion that preaches “love one another,” and yet encourages the most virulent forms of hate. True, Islam does this to a degree Christianity can only dream of, but Christianity is still pretty objectionable. It is Christianity that inspires essentially 100% of the homophobia that is practiced in this country, and it informs most of its racism as well. You could say that this activity is merely bad people misinterpreting Christianity to their own ends. But it’s hard to sell that excuse when passages in Leviticus calling for the execution of gays, and similarly hateful passages in Romans exist.

And why do so many racist groups openly identify themselves as Christian, giving themselves such pompous names as “World Church of the Creator”? This, I’d say, is perhaps not something particular to Christianity as it is to the very nature of religion itself: religion has historically been a tool for people to justify violence, atrocities, bigotry, oppression, even outright murder by giving such activity the divine stamp of approval. Todd Rundgren comments eloquently on this in his song “God Said,” in which he imagines God replying to the prayers of a desperate and insecure believer.

You are not serving me, you’re serving something else
Cause I don’t need to be pleased, just get over yourself
You can’t suck up to me, I know you all too well
But I don’t dwell upon you, so get over yourself
Cause you’re not praying to me, you’re praying to yourself
And you’re not worshiping me, you’re worshiping yourself
And you will kill in my name and heaven knows what else
When you can’t prove I exist, so get over yourself

You might say, again, that religiously-inspired hate and violence is man misusing religion, and doesn’t come from God. But outside of Rundgren’s song, I don’t see God doing much to put a stop to such activity in his name. And when you consider, as I (and Todd) have, that what people call God is pretty much always simply their own idealized self-image, projected upon the universe, is it any wonder that religiosity has so often taken such an ugly form?

Another thing that turns me off about religion in general and Christianity in particular is the way such beliefs encourage delusion and bankrupt knowledge. I could go on (and have) at length about the way Christian fundamentalists in America are engaged in an all-out war on science education, specifically the study of a subject — evolutionary biology — that is vital to the understanding of our health and of our ability to treat disease. And the roster of scientific all-stars suppressed (Galileo) or just plain murdered outright (Giordano Bruno) by the Church is a stain you’ll never wash off. But this post is going to be long enough as it is, so I’ll move on.

Scholar William Lane Craig: “What’s the real reason you don’t believe in God? How and when do you lose your faith in God?”

Why ask for the “real reason” as if you assume atheists are, as a general rule, dishonest about their reasons for not believing? If you think that’s the case, I’d expect to see you back the claim up. You know, being a “scholar” and all. But really, the reason I don’t believe in God is the same for why I don’t believe that UFO’s have a habit of traveling millions of light-years across space only to leave odd markings in crops and kidnap poor country bumpkins in order to perform proctology exams: There’s zilch in the way of credible evidence for the belief.

As for when I lost my faith in God, well, let me say this. While I had a Christian upbringing, don’t assume all atheists started out theist. Kazim here on the blog is a lifelong atheist, and you’ll find many such folks. I’d say my process towards disbelief began in early adolescence, around age 14 or so, and progressed through to my adulthood. Atheists do not tend to have “road to Damascus” deconversion epiphanies. The path to disbelief is an intellectual exercise in developing one’s reasoning capacities and learning to slough off the rubbish your mind’s been filled with since childhood. It’s a lot like outgrowing your belief in Santa, just a bit more involved.

Thinking back, I don’t think I ever really had “faith” in God. I know you’ll leap on that as an admission I was never a True Christian™ to begin with. But to be totally honest, I don’t think most of the people sitting in pews every Sunday really have “faith” in God either. They say they do, because that is what is expected of you in the Christian life. But, as George H. Smith pointed out, “scratch the surface of a Christian and you will find an agnostic.” I tend to think most Christians are cultural believers who, when their backs are against the wall, really don’t believe what they claim to believe. At least not to the point of having real “faith” in their God.

Example: When pink-wigged Jan Crouch of TBN infamy came down with colon cancer in 2003, she checked herself into a hospital’s oncology ward to undergo surgery. And yet the network she and her husband run regularly features the rallies of Benny Hinn, who performs flamboyant onstage “healings.” If the Crouches really believed in what Hinn was doing as an agent of the Lord (after all, they’re promoting his programs to millions and making money off them), why didn’t Jan just go to Benny for a miracle cure? So much for “faith in God.” When the chips are down, it’s science to the rescue after all.

Author and pastor John Ortberg: “How can you create a meaningful life in a meaningless universe?”

I’d first ask John what he means by “meaningless universe.” If he means “non-teleological,” that is, not intentionally designed for the purpose of housing us, the human race, who are so very special, then yes, I do think the universe is meaningless in that sense, and I further fail to see how that fact prevents me, as an individual and higher-thinking being, from establishing meaning in my own life here on Earth. Imagine a group of people putting on a Shakespeare play in an open field. You might as well ask them, “How can you produce a Shakespeare play in a location not specifically constructed and designed for the purpose of performing plays?” Meaning is that which we attach to our own lives, through our goals, ambitions, our desire to leave behind a legacy to be proud of. I don’t tend to fret over my life choices because they cannot possibly “mean” anything on Omicron Ceti VIII. Why do you, John, think the universe must have some kind of specific “meaning” first, in order for your own life to have one?

The next question, and easily the silliest of the lot, comes from apologist Gary Habermas, who identifies himself as a “resurrection expert” in a way that indicates we’re meant to be impressed. From my side of the fence this sounds like identifying oneself as a “Greek mythology expert.” Sure, there’s a vast and interesting field of cultural history and literature to be studied there. But the fact there are experts in Greek mythology doesn’t imply those myths are true, any more than the fact some apologist considers himself a “resurrection expert” makes that particular myth true. But Gary is quite full of himself and his expertise, and launches into a prolix question loaded with unfounded assumptions and unsupported claims stated as fact.

Resurrection expert Gary Habermas: “Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself.”

These historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These “minimal facts” are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn’t enjoy quite the same universal consensus, nevertheless it is conceded by 75 percent of these scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.

I bet you didn’t know there was universal consensus among “virtually all contemporary scholars” that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, did you? Why, it must be true, since Gary says so himself. Who exactly are these “scholars,” Gary? Yes, I’m being tiresome, asking for names, citations, and what have you, but you know, that’s what we skeptics do. I’d especially like to know who the “skeptics” are among this vast array of contemporary scholars, and especially what it is they are supposed to be skeptical about, since, according to you, they all agree with the historicity of Gospel claims about Jesus. Which would seem to make them, you know, not skeptics. Not to be pedantic or anything. I’m just sayin’.

Naturally it would help to have some of these names. And then, once given the names, we’d need to immediately weed out the ones who were, like Gary, Christian apologists writing for Christian publications rather than peer-reviewed academic journals. Because, as Gary so astutely points out, you really need to assess evidence without preconceptions clouding your judgment.

Okay, enough snark. Obviously Gary’s question is preposterous on its face, mainly because it’s rooted in numerous claims that certain events have been independently established as historical fact, when they have not. Shall we go through them by the numbers?

  1. We have no bulletproof extra-Biblical evidence that the Jesus of the Bible existed at all, let alone that he performed any of the feats attributed to him by the Gospels. Now, I happen to think that the character of Jesus was, in all likelihood, inspired by a real person.

    But even granting this much of the benefit of the doubt, this gets us no closer to real historical, archaeological proof of anything the Gospels say he did. Remember that the earliest scriptures were the product of an unscientific, pre-Enlightenment, primitive, barbaric and cruel culture. Even educated Roman historians like Seutonius, writing about the Twelve Caesars (a great read, btw — snag it), took things like omens and auguries seriously, and slipped them into their histories. Fanciful stories about supernatural occurrences involving popular Roman generals were circulated and believed by the legionnaires; these helped boost morale among the men. In short, the Gospels are hardly unique in making occult claims about famous men. But at its most prosaic, is it likely that, if an itinerant Jewish rabbi named Jesus/Jeshua existed, and pissed off the establishment, that he’d have been crucified as a common rabble rouser and malcontent? Sure, it may have happened. Does it follow from this that we can then claim to have sufficient evidence he rose from the dead? Here’s a hint:
    no.

  2. That someone is converted to a religion or embraces a belief does not prove it is true.
  3. Goto 2.
  4. Goto 3.
  5. What accounts of Jesus’ empty tomb exist outside of scripture? And even if we had such (the passages in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews are widely considered inauthentic), well, allow me to illustrate the absurdity of what you’re claiming, Gary.

    You’re stating that it is an established historical fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty three days after his crucifixion, and that this supports the belief that he rose from the dead. How, exactly, would we in the present day establish this as a fact?

    Let’s go for the best case scenario a Christian could hope for. Let’s say a tomb is unearthed by archaeologists in a location conforming to where Jesus’ tomb is supposed to have been. (No, not this one.) Let’s say they find pretty solid evidence that the tomb was, in fact, the one Jesus was placed in. (For grins, we’ll say they find that little INRI sign that appears in every dead-guy-on-a-stick painting handed down to us through the ages.) Let’s say they carbon date all this stuff right to 33 C.E. (that’s A.D. to you). And let’s say there’s no skeleton in the tomb at all.

    Could we deduce from this that the resurrection really happened? Well, no, any more than an Egyptologist could deduce, finding an empty burial tomb of a forgotten pharaoh, that the guy’s mummy shambled to its feet and wandered off to do some Boris Karloff thing. Maybe the tomb was broken into and robbed; happened often enough. You might expect to see signs of that, but maybe the graverobbers were extremely careful to conceal their tracks. Indeed, maybe the tomb had been broken into by the disciples themselves, in which case, you’d expect them to be careful. Or maybe the tomb was broken into 1800 years ago, or 1600, or 1200, or 700. Maybe it wasn’t maliciously broken into at all, but quite intentionally opened up in order to relocate the body to a different tomb altogether.

    There’d be almost no way to tell. And the point is, I’m giving a hypothetical here. We don’t have an actual Tomb O’ Jesus in the archaeological record anywhere at all. Don’t think for moment every accountant in Israel’s Ministry of Tourism hasn’t fantasized that they had one. So how you expect to approach a group of skeptics with the bald claim that Jesus’ empty tomb is established as factual, while citing no sources and naming none of the impressive dramatis personae of scholars you say agree with you, is quite boggling. You seem to think you can say, “hey, some of these guys were skeptics too!” as if we are obliged to respond with, “well, gee, then maybe I should take all this seriously myself.” Honestly, Gary, you give the impression that the job of “resurrection expert” is to make a bunch of stuff up! [/sarcasm] Do you even know what skepticism entails?

    Okay, I’ll grant that you admitted there isn’t universal consensus on the tomb thing. But, you say, 75% of scholars concede the point. How handy that it’s exactly 75%! I mean, it could have been 72.14% percent, which is, like, a weird number. But 75% would be the kind of thing that might make people sit up and notice, unless they were intelligent skeptics. In which case, you should expect to hear lots of snickering, as you’re hearing now. Then again, you could always cite your sources and name these guys. Because, as the saying goes, 98% of statistics are made up on the spot. But who knows? Maybe yours are among that 2%. I think there’s about an 11.3851% possibility of that.

So my “comprehensive natural explanation” of the resurrection that “makes better sense than the event itself”? Simple. Like the Virgin Birth, it’s a myth. Because the event itself makes no sense. While understanding that it is a myth conforms to Occam’s Razor, the law of parsimony. Which is the more parsimonious and sensible explanation for the resurrection?

  • That it is a myth, or…
  • …that at one point in history, one human cadaver behaved in a manner that, in all of human history, no human cadaver had ever acted before, or has acted since.

Don’t think too hard on it.

Final points: Is it not odd, considering how factually established you seem to think the resurrection is, that the Gospels themselves give conflicting accounts of how it all went down? Being a resurrection expert, I assume you know this. I mean, if the divinely inspired word of God can’t get its information straight, what can we trust? Here, for the rest of you, is the game I like to call Choose Your Own Resurrection Adventure.

Matthew 28

  • Number of women visiting the tomb: 2 (Mary Magdalene and Mary (Jesus’ mother).
  • Earthquake: yes.
  • Number of angels and when they appear: 1, descending from Heaven following earthquake.
  • Anybody else there?: yes, an unspecified number of “keepers,” who understandably did “shake and become as dead men” in response to all this divine seismic activity and angelic visitation.
  • Tomb open or closed?: Opened by angel immediately upon touchdown, demonstrating that no one knows how to make an entrance quite like an angel. Then, just to show off how frickin’ cool angels are, he calmly sits down on the stone after rolling it away.
  • Reaction: The two Marys rush off to tell the disciples. Part-ay! Jesus arrives, fashionably late. Serious part-ay! Disciples are encouraged to spread the word that Jesus will appear to his “brethren” in Galilee, and to meet him there.
  • Anti-Semitic CYA quotient: High. Priests from the temple, who must have slept through the earthquake, are led to empty tomb by guards, and are accordingly chagrined. They bribe the guards to spread the word that the disciples stole the body. If I were writing this scene, I’d have a clueless, comedy-relief guard named Dorkus Magnus say something like, “But what about the earthq—”, followed by a getting-hit-over-the-head sound.

Mark 16

  • Number of women visiting the tomb: 3 (Mary Mag, Mary Mom, and someone named Salome).
  • Earthquake: no. In fact we get the idea it’s a pretty morning.
  • Anybody else there?: No.
  • Tomb open or closed?: Already open when the women get there.
  • Number of angels and when they appear: 1, and he’s already inside the open tomb, waiting for them.
  • Reaction: Fear. The angel calmly tells the women to inform the disciples Jesus is arisen, but, terrified, they keep their mouths shut and tell no one. Then Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, and next, bizarrely, appears to two of his disciples (not named) in “another form.” These men tell the remaining disciples, who don’t believe them. Jesus then appears to them (as himself, I presume), jumps everybody’s shit for doubting his return, then orders them all to spread the word. In short, a considerably less joyous reunion than in Matthew. Footnote: a lot of folks have died over the years thanks to Mark 16:18.
  • Anti-Semitic CYA quotient: None. No denouement here about wily Sanhedrin.

Luke 24

  • Number of women visiting the tomb: More than 3 (Mary Mag, Mary Mom, someone named Joanna, plus an unspecified number of “other women”).
  • Earthquake: no.
  • Anybody else there?: No.
  • Tomb open or closed?: Already open when the women get there.
  • Number of angels and when they appear: 2, who beam down from Heaven with considerably less pyrotechnics than Matthew’s angel, while the women are standing slack-jawed inside the empty tomb wondering where Jesus is. This sudden appearance, not surprisingly, scares the shit out of them.
  • Reaction: Complex, happy but muted. The women rush off and tell all the disciples, who don’t believe them. But Peter goes and checks out the empty tomb himself, leaving perplexed. An unspecified time later, two disciples are discussing the event in a town called Erasmus, when they encounter Jesus and fail to recognize him, with the passage indicating, as did Mark, that Jesus was intentionally disguising himself. The disguised Jesus casually questions the men, who express their sadness at Jesus’ death and confusion over events at the tomb. Jesus gently rebukes them for their doubt, then has dinner with them later, where he reveals his true identity then promptly disappears. The men return to Jerusalem and inform the other disciples, at which point Jesus beams in. But the disciples are frightened and think he may be a ghost. Jesus confirms his realness by letting them examine his wounds. Then, instead of giving his “go out into all the world” speech, he tells them all to hang loose in Jerusalem “until ye be endued with power from on high.” Finally Jesus goes back to Heaven and the disciples spend all their time in the temple praying.
  • Anti-Semitic CYA quotient: None.

John 20-21

  • Number of women visiting the tomb: 1, only Mary Magdalene.
  • Earthquake: no.
  • Anybody else there?: No.
  • Tomb open or closed?: Already open when Mary Mag gets there. She promptly runs off and gets Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple, believing that someone has already stolen Jesus’ body.
  • Number of angels and when they appear: 2, who, for some reason, only show up inside the tomb after Simon Peter and the other disciple have checked the place out and gone home. Only Mary Mag sees them.
  • Reaction: …And not only that, Jesus is in there too, alive! And like the befuddled disciples in the other Gospels, Mary Mag at first not only doesn’t recognize him, but mistakes him for the gardener and asks where he has moved Jesus’ body! Then he reveals himself to her. Interestingly he says he has not yet ascended to Heaven, but is waiting to tell her to inform the disciples of his resurrection first. (Why didn’t he just appear when the men were there too? John really needed a good story editor.) She does so that night, at which point Jesus materializes in their midst. In John, there is only one disciple, Thomas, who later doubts Jesus is alive (unlike all of them in Luke), and that’s because he was the only guy not there at the time. Eight days later Jesus appears again, proves himself to Thomas, and chides him for his entirely reasonable skepticism. Later still, Jesus plays an odd prank on some of the disciples fishing on a boat in the Sea of Tiberias. In disguise again (why? — they already know he’s risen), he calls to them from the shore and they complain the fishing is lousy. Jesus tells them to cast their net again, and they promptly snag 153 fish. Simon Peter, now aware the stranger is Jesus, gets embarrassed at his nudity and jumps over the side. LOL! Later, over a yummy fish dinner on the beach, Jesus, after a fashion, forgives Simon Peter for his earlier denial of him (John 18:25-27), giving the man a speech that might have inspired the one given by Don Corleone in The Godfather. (“Someday, and that day may never come, I may ask you a favor…”) Finally, the author of John slips himself into the dinner party, giving Jesus a line that implies the kingdom of Heaven will be installed on Earth in John’s own lifetime.
  • Anti-Semitic CYA quotient: Surprisingly light, considering how anti-Semitic most of John is considered to be in its crucifixion scene. There’s a brief note that, after the tomb is found empty, the disciples are in hiding “for fear of the Jews.”

Whew. Quite a lot of variations for one story, eh? Was there an earthquake, or not? Angels inside or outside the tomb? And why is Jesus doing all this concealing of himself, when he presumably wants his followers to know he’s back and better than ever? Given so many discrepancies and incongruities in the narrative, it must take a great deal of stretching on Habermas’ part to have the stones to claim all of this is established historical fact. But then, maybe that’s what being a “resurrection expert” is about: skillful explaining away of the problems in the narrative, to make it all sound like it was meant to be that way. I think that’s probably what apologists call “interpretation.”

Next: Three more apologists to answer…stay tuned.