Get your nerd on, with Castles of Air

I apologize for the self-promotion, but I know we have a big audience and I’d like to drum up an initial following for my newest blog.

Castles of Air is about the art and science of software development. While this is admittedly a very specialized interest, I know we are blessed by a high proportion of nerds and smart people among our fans. I’ve been a developer for about a decade and a half now, because I’ve always felt that writing programs is an enjoyable hobby which also, luckily, is often worth good money. I also believe that working with computers is an excellent introduction to rigorous logic and everybody should learn at least the basics as an important part of their education.

You know my strong feelings about science, and I approach programming from a scientific background as well. I expect to be writing several posts about how to approach debugging as a science, making hypotheses about where the problems might lie and testing those to prove them true or false. And of course, I think of the mind as a great big virtual reality machine for modeling the world.

If all that doesn’t sound like it could possibly hold the slightest bit of interest for you, just get back to the regularly scheduled programming and forget I wasted your time. But if you are interested, please check out my new blog, bookmark it, follow it, save the RSS feed, or whatever you want to do.

The hilarious self-importance of Brannon Howse

In recent days, we’ve dealt with headier topics here (though no less incorrect) than one usually gets when responding to religious claims of one sort or another. But it’s been a long time since we’ve let our hair down, so to speak, and just smacked around some village idiots. So, in the spirit of mean-spirited fun, let us observe the recent inanities from Brannon Howse.

Howse is the big cheese over at the beyond-right-wing house of delusion known as the Christian Worldview Network. I get their e-newsletters, and trust me, a more delirious exercise in concatenated crazy you will not find outside Arkham Asylum. It’s Christianity stripped down to its ugliest, basest form: ignorance, fear, and paranoia ooze from its every pixel.

Recently, Howse wrapped up a nationwide church tour performing what he called “Code Blue Rallies,” in which he and a group of guest speakers basically got up behind a pulpit to display their tenuous grasp of reality in living color for all to see. The usual wackalunacy was trotted out: young-earth creationism, liberal bashing, you name it. If it’s on the McDonald’s menu of fundagelical stupidity, Howse served it up and super-sized it at his rallies.

One of these, at Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth (Howse skipped that liberal cesspit Austin), was attended by newspaper columnist Bud Kennedy, who wrote a mildly snarky and generally bemused piece on the surreal experience for the Star-Telegram.

Howse’s response to this was to go into full-on Christian persecution mode, whining on the radio show Crosstalk about how Kennedy’s little column was an especially egregious example of the “liberal media and their attempt to characterize and marginalize Christians.” Howse is mindful of the fact the Christian Worldview Network audience is made up of the sort of knuckleheads who move their lips when they read, and to whom the very word “liberal” is like Tard Kryptonite. So all he has to do is throw the L-word out, and he knows his audience’s reactionary prejudices will do the rest. Later, naturally, he decries the way the “liberal media” unfairly tries to portray Christians as fringe kooks by “taking their words out of context” and using buzzwords to play on anti-Christian prejudices. Gee, hypocrisy from a fundie? What will they think of next?

The comedy begins even before you play the radio show. In the CWN’s e-newsletter plugging this episode, Howse claims that Kennedy “slipped into” the rally — you know, like a commie spy or something. What he doesn’t mention is the fact these rallies were open to the public free of charge. Now, who needs to “slip into” a free, public, widely advertised event? I suspect Kennedy just, you know, walked through the frackin’ front door of the church like every other rube who went to that stupid thing. But Howse needs to give the impression Kennedy is a shady guy in general, so as to shore up his listeners’ fear of teh libruls. It may seem a trivially funny little detail, but when you consider how Howse spends his show taking almost every word of Kennedy’s column apart looking for distortions to be indignant over, it really underscores what a two-faced little prat Howse is, y’know?

Now keep something in mind: Kennedy’s article takes all of a minute and a half to read. Howse, in response, whines and snivels for a full 20 minutes on his radio show about how horribly Kennedy trashed him, and then he takes calls. (By the way, if you ever entertained the idea that fundamentalists can’t possibly be as stupid as they seem, you need to listen to a Christian radio show. Nowhere else will you hear scientific illiteracy and anti-intellectualism paraded as proudly, except perhaps at a “Code Blue Rally”.)

Kennedy certainly wasn’t kind, but the piece was hardly the vitriolic trashing Howse wants us to think it is. (Really, Brannon, if you want “mean-spirited”, hang out here for a week. We’ll put some piss in your peaches and cream, and no mistake!) Mostly, it was just making fun. Furthermore, Kennedy does not, anywhere in the article, “go after” Birchman or its pastor, Bob Pearle, for sponsoring the event, as Howse claims. Indeed, Kennedy quotes Pearle as being rather surprised at the contents of Howse’s presentation, and trying to distance himself from some of its dumber content. Howse puts Pearle on the show as a phone-in guest so that Pearle can backpedal from some of his statements to Kennedy as quoted in the article.

What follows is a hilarious back-and-forth in which Howse and Pearle essentially give each other emergency hugs to reassure themselves both of their victimhood and the fact that these evil liberal newspapers that keep “blindsiding” them and “bashing Christians” are doomed. They gloat a bit about how the Star-Telegram is facing cutbacks and losing sales. It’s a claim not confirmed, of course, but assuming it’s entirely true, I’d suspect the reason for the paper’s recent hard times is less due to their supposed Christian-bashing (just how many editorials in the last year, I wonder, were explicitly designed to mock religion?) than to the same economic crises plaguing, oh, the entire globe. A legacy bequeathed us, by the way, by a conservative Christian president and his policies.

Moreover, what’s funny about Howse’s whinefest is the way Howse implies that anyone criticizing him is criticizing all Christians and all Christianity. He, Howse, is Christianity, he seems to want us to think. Howse turns anal-retention into an art form as he deconstructs Kennedy’s trifling little column sentence-by-sentence, pouncing on even the tiniest point as an example of Kennedy’s sinister Christian-hating ways. Of the passage where Kennedy notes, “Howse has also openly criticized California Pastor Rick Warren,” Howse huffs and puffs in practiced indignation. Did I say a word about Rick Warren that whole evening? he pointedly demands. Maybe not, Brannon, but Kennedy didn’t specify that, only that you have attacked Warren before. (Not something I’d disagree with, but your brand of freeze-dried heat-and-serve moronity is no better.) I know, I get your e-newsletters, and I’ve seen the anti-Warren headlines.

But mainly, all one can say in response to Howse’s show is, “Dude, get over yourself.” In Howse’s mind, even the slightest criticism equates to intimidation and a desire to silence. If even the tiniest and most insignificant little column like this can get your knickers in a twist, and become the kind of thing you need to blow up into some kind of pretend national scandal, claiming that it’s an attempt to “silence and intimidate” Christians everywhere when all it does is poke fun at your stupid rally, then frankly, you have serious self-importance issues to deal with. Again, the strains of Todd Rundgren’s “God Said” come back to me: “Just get over, get over, get over, get over yourself…”

Howse, who won’t be satisfied until blood is spilled, apparently (and that’s exactly the kind of metaphor his little mind would take 100% literally), gave his listeners both Kennedy’s email and his editors’. I’ll give them to you too, so you can drop them a line. Kennedy, to tell him thanks for the laughs, and to keep it up. And the editors’, so you can tell him how good you think Kennedy is.
Publisher Gary Wortel:
Executive editor Jim Witt:
Editorial director Paul Harral:

Russell’s compiled responses to Chuck Colson

This message is part of a continuing discussion with Chuck Colson.  For my initial email to him, see this post.  For Chuck’s replies:

Chuck Colson’s post #1; Chuck Colson’s post #2; Chuck Colson’s post #3


To Chuck Colson:

It has taken me a while, but I’ve replied to the major points in the three letters you sent to me regarding my review of The Faith.  Please visit the following links to see this three part reply.

Part 1: Faith and certainty

“To return to the original theme that I touched upon when I discussed your book, the main difference between your position and mine appears to be that you have chosen to take a position of unwavering certainty, and then you describe that as knowledge.  But it’s a highly subjective kind of knowledge, for your central point is that knowledge begins with something that (you acknowledge) you have arbitrarily decided to believe without reason.”

Part 2: Prison Ministry statistics revisited

“It’s not the soundness of your methodology that I’ve questioned here; it’s the results.  The study looked fine to me, and I certainly can’t go back and try to reproduce the results myself.   But I don’t need to.  The study you referenced already demonstrates that the program was counter-productive.  In fact, if you look at page 18, it’s stated explicitly: ‘Simply stated, participation in the program is not related to recidivism reduction.'”

Part 3: Slavery and Christianity

“While I would agree that you could not fault Christianity for a misapplication of the teachings in the Bible, we are not talking here about people who read clear injunctions against slavery and rebelled against them.  We are talking precisely about what it says in the Bible that clearly supports slavery.  For better or worse, Stringfellow seems to me to have been a sincere Christian who genuinely believed that he was acting in accordance with the clear commands of the Bible.  The Bible said to hold slaves, and he preached that Christians should hold slaves.”

Although I waited longer than I intended to get back to you, I want to say that I did appreciate your response, and continue to enjoy the opportunity to explore our differences.  I’ll make no promises that my next response will be speedier than this one, so feel free to take as much time as you need if you would like to get back to me.

Russell Glasser

Is Religion Beneficial to Society?

I’m currently in a correspondence with a person who is offering me the tired line that religion is helpful to people and not in conflict with science and has been involved in some worthy efforts.

This morning, February 25, in the Austin American-Statesman, there were two articles—one on the front page of the National section, and one on the front of the Local and State—that covered dangerous errors in sex education in our schools and legislation undermining the relationship between a woman and her doctor, which also noted that our governor has once again spoken out against medical research that researchers believe could yield beneficial medical results. Make no mistake, these initiatives are designed purely to resonate among religious constituents. Are there nonreligious people who might (and do) support these same measures? Yes, I’m sure there are. Would there be enough people motivated outside of religious initiatives to make these “issues” important to legislators? I highly doubt it. The reason they are “issues” is because they are religiously supported agendas. And religion means numbers.

I agree that religion is not in conflict with science—in any area where science is not in conflict with religion. However, as soon as science puts forward any assertion that does not correlate to religious claims, science comes under attack from religion, and bad things happen. The correspondent pointed out that Islamic nations long ago were among some of the most progressive thinkers in math and science. I have heard this, too. However, I wonder what sorts progressive thinking applied to apostates and heretics in these same ancient Islamic nations? Was a conversion to another religion (outside of Islam) taken in stride, do you think?

I don’t claim that where religion doesn’t conflict with X, religion will automatically oppose X. But where religion perceives that X opposes religion, X will be castigated by religious adherents—often violently and forcefully. We see it daily. And I am unaware of a time when it wasn’t so.

For awhile, I’ve been mentioning to Matt that I would like to see a publication of the letters we get to the TV-List. I would devote a section to all the letters, like this latest, telling me that religion is benign or good for people for the most part. And I would follow that section with all the letters we get from adherents telling us that their religion is good, who after a few exchanges say that mass genocide, mass infanticide, suicide-mass-murder, rape, slavery and child sacrifice are all morally acceptable if, and only if, a god tells you to do these things.

I often hear the question “Name one benefit religion offers that could not be achieved secularly (without the lies and harm that comes with religion).” It’s not a benefit, but I have found that you can get a person to say that “X is not moral in situation Y,” and then turn around in only one or two exchanges and get them to say “X was moral in situation Y because there was an added caveat that god said to do it.”

Religion can take a human being who is willing to condemn an action as immoral in a particular circumstance, and get them to say that same action is moral in that same circumstance, if a god says to do it. Now, there are certainly regimes that can get people to commit atrocities that aren’t religious. But it would be hard to get someone who is not a sociopath to admit in a hypothetical that he’d be willing to slaughter children in droves if a charismatic leader asked him to do it, or that he would kill his own child at the request of some persuasive person. Might he do it for a person if the situation actually arose? Yes. He might. Is he likely to foresee and admit that a human could ever convince him to do it (without some form of immediate duress)? No.

Is a belief system that can take a person’s moral reason and short-circuit that to “obey without question” a benign and harmless system? Aren’t we describing a ticking time bomb? What stands between this person committing atrocities—but something to convince him it’s what his god wants out of him? Is a person who says that killing children is right if god requests it, honestly that different than a person who actually kills children because he believes god requested it? Aren’t they the same person, except that one is merely waiting for some cue?

I recall a particular letter from a father of a nine-month-old who wrote to say that even if his religion isn’t true, what harm is it to raise his daughter in Christianity?

I asked him if he accepted the doctrines of hell and salvation. He did. I explained that in his paradigm, salvation requires a blanket condemnation of all human beings as imperfect for being who and what they are. Salvation and hell don’t mean “imperfect” as in “nobody’s perfect,” but “imperfect” as in “You are so horribly and inherently flawed, that by rights you deserve eternal torture according to god, and as your Christian dad, I have to agree that’s exactly what someone like you, my child, should get.”

I asked him what he thought it would mean to a little girl to know that her father sees her as that sort of a horrible being—inherently flawed to the point of complete and total unacceptability?

Initially he attempted to argue god’s love for us and how god wants us to go to heaven and not go to hell. But he couldn’t really find a way to get around the fact that his doctrines meant that he had to say he thought his daughter was inherently flawed and that nothing intrinsic to her could ever be “good enough” to merit anything but eternal punishment. He finally grasped that if there were something she could do that would make her “good enough” to not merit an eternity of torture, then intervention by Jesus would be unnecessary—negating the doctrine of salvation through Jesus. And without someone like Jesus granting her god’s “mercy” (mercy, meaning it’s not what she really deserves, but what god gives her regardless of her undeserving nature), she was hopeless and despicable.

Most of us would normally have a hard time saying any of our worst recorded criminals should be, by rights, tortured for eternity. But even if we felt that way about a person, I would expect that their actions would have to be, in some regard, fairly heinous. Someone might want revenge on Hitler to the point of hoping for a merciless, vengeful eternity of torture. But an average child? Or even an average adult? It’s hard to believe anyone would say that any of our friends and neighbors should be deserving of torture for ten minutes, let alone eternity?

I asked this dad what he would think of a neighbor who each day sat his own kids down and told them, “I think you are all such despicable children that you deserve nothing less than to be beaten without mercy, but since I love you so much, I won’t do that to you, so long as you tell me how truly sorry you are that you’re who and what you are—utterly unworthy.”

I don’t say there aren’t or couldn’t be secular systems that impact normal people’s minds and thwart their reason and moral sense in this way. I don’t say that nonreligious systems can’t and haven’t gotten good people to do bad things. What I’m saying is that I’d be hard pressed to get a human with a normally developed brain, who isn’t already abusive or a sociopath, to say—in a purely hypothetical framework—that people ought to be tortured simply for being people—and for no other reason.

I have never met people who have told me that any historical or current genocide or mass infanticide was “morally right” for any reason other than “god commanded it.” And I haven’t just met a few of those. I’ve met many. And I’m still meeting them. And I can Google their responses to the Old Testament stories and find site after site attesting to the moral correctness of committing atrocities for the Christian god. And I can
’t stress strongly enough that these are not the Fred Phelps’s of the world. These are good, tax-paying, loving, caring, generous people who work and live along side us all in every segment of our society. In fact, any Christian who accepts the Bible as true and god as good, must assert these actions are good in any situation where they are commanded by a god.

There is something unnerving about living in a society where the predominant religion is one that can make a standard, normal human assert that atrocities should never be committed—except when god says to commit them. And then recognizing that in this same society, most of my fellow citizens believe a god exists and in some way communicates or has communicated with them and/or others. And that they further believe that this god, according to their sacred texts, has righteously commanded such atrocities to be committed by his adherents.

Call me crazy?

We get email

I imagine everybody’s good and fatigued by two solid weeks of playing philosophical word games with professional word gamers, so let’s dial it back and enjoy a more typical theist email.

You don’t get the full effect of these two messages by “J” (full name withheld by me) because they originally arrived as giant unbroken paragraphs, and I’ll be breaking them up in order to respond.

hey , while you’re so busy trying to get people to prove the existence of God to you on your little low budget talk show, why not prove to us that God does not exist. you can’t can you? it’s called a stalemate. there is no way for either side to prove anything concerning the subject.

Perhaps you have misunderstood the meaning of the word “atheism.” What it means is that we don’t believe in the existence of any gods, not that we regard it as a certainty. I also don’t believe in, for example, Spider-Man – but I would never claim to conclusively prove that he doesn’t exists.

Do you believe in Spider-Man?

i know he exist because of the things i prayed for and other thing i have seen in my life. i have a bulging disc in my lower back which pressed relentlessly against my sciatic nerve. it caused me pain every single hour of everyday for months. i tried multiple medicines, physical therapy, and hot/cold compresses. nothing worked for long. one day my mother convinced me to get prayed for by my sister who had just gotten saved. {laugh if you like} my sister prayed for me over the phone from beaumont, tx to seattle, wa long distance and the very next day all that excruciating pain was gone. you could say it was all a coincidence or it would have stopped on it’s own that day anyway. you could also say what my atheist buddy travis said and claim it was the power of positive thinking. whatever. all i know is the day after i got prayed for, after MONTHS of severe pain, it was gone.

There are two fallacies in this argument. One is known as “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” Just because one event happened after another event, it does not follow that one caused the other. People experience severe pain all the time, and that pain goes away all the time. People pray all the time. Odds are very high that at some point, somebody who will be praying for their pain to go away and it will go away shortly afterwards. Odds are also high that many people pray for pain to go away and it doesn’t.

This leads to the other fallacy, which is called confirmation bias. When you pray for something and it happens, it looks like the prayer did the job. When you pray for something and it doesn’t happen, you can dismiss it as not praying hard enough, or “It wasn’t God’s will.” When something good happens without your prayer, you don’t notice it. Thus, if you already believe in prayer, then of course your belief is confirmed over time.

the things in this world are to perfectly planned out for it all to be a result of some random asteroid crashing into earth while it was still in it’s molten stage and cooling. to perfectly organized for humans to derive from sea sludge to reptile to ape to man. male and female; the ability to mate and reproduce. all random, right?

No. These things are enabled through regular behavior by natural patterns, which makes matter behave in a non-random way. Undirected, but that isn’t the same thing.

a woman’s clitoris being a focal point of extreme pleasure and the underside near the head of a mans penis being his is all a huge case of random coincidences. i guess our genitalia evolved to experience pleasure. couldn’t be because God wanted us to experience these sensations to make us happy and strengthen the bond with your mate while we reproduce.

Look, I um…



Did you seriously just present the clitoris as proof of God? I uh…

I have to confess that’s a new one on me. For once, I’m completely speechless.

i could give you example after example, but i know it would not convince a mind as closed as yours. all i can say to you if you desire proof is. die. after that, you and every proud, arrogant, and uplifted human who thinks so highly of themselves will know there is a God. However, it will be a pointless revelation while you are burning.

Nice. When your arguments are this ineffective, I suppose threatening people with imaginary torture is one kind of backup plan. Not a GOOD backup plan, mind you. The clitoris was better, I think.

i guess making yourself feel better by just erasing God from your existence is the thing to do since you will have no restriction on taking part in whatever hedonistic behavior you desire. do you have any idea of the types of thing i would do if i didn’t believe in God. i’m bi-polar with an extremely bad temper. if i didn’t have God to keep me in check i know i would hurt anyone who pissed me off and kill anyone who did anything bad enough for me to want to kill them. and screw the police since i would not care about jail or the death penalty because there is no after-life. right? i’d probably kill myself afterwards anyway just to prevent them from locking me up.

It’s always fascinating to learn what kind of crazy psychopaths are drawn to Christianity. You set a shining example for your religion to live up to, buddy, I can tell you that.

i’d just be going back to the dust right? no judgement. no heaven or hell. point is, what’s the meaning of anything if God is not involved in the lives of earth’s inhabitants? sorry this email is so long.

i’m j**** by the way.

Nice to meet you, J. I don’t think I’ll be getting together with you for coffee anytime soon. You might want to talk to a decent psychiatrist about that angst you’re feeling… it doesn’t sound like the religion is cheering you up much.

That was just one of the two messages. The second is just as bad, but I’m not in the mood anymore.

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Slavery and Christianity


I’d like to turn back to your second message, and the question of slavery. I pointed out in my earlier post that, rather than taking it as a given that Christians have always been the natural opponents of slavery, you might acknowledge that the Bible has frequently been used in the past to justify slavery. As an example I brought up the 19th century Reverend Thornton Stringfellow, who wrote a persuasive sermon supporting slavery as a Biblical institution. Your response, in a nutshell, was this:

“There are 1.9 billion Christians in the world today. You cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of any one of them or any group of them, for that matter.”

Well, of course you can’t. I agree: you can’t judge the value of a philosophy based solely on the behavior of its adherents. But if that is the case, then certainly the reverse is also true: You can’t judge Christianity positively based on the good actions of its followers. Yet you do this continually throughout The Faith: you bring up actions taken by historical Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and you present them as if they were some kind of demonstration that Christianity is a good philosophy.

Here’s my problem with that. Either you can judge Christianity by its followers, or you can’t. I admire Bonhoeffer for his bravery, but I don’t regard his actions as a justification for Christianity in their own right. I admire Martin Luther King, Jr. for his work with civil rights, but the respect I have for Dr. King does not require me to accept his faith as correct. It is not that I oppose your pride in members of your faith who exhibited strong dedication to benefitting their fellow man. What concerns me is that your pride in these people is used in your book, as it is in many apologetic works, to implicitly claim that Christianity confers some virtue that is not present in secular individuals like me.

However, if you can judge Christianity by the actions of Bonhoeffer and King, then it is fair game to also judge it by the actions of Reverend Thornton Stringfellow. Stringfellow strongly argued that the Old Testament was explicitly pro-slavery, and having read both the Bible and the speech, I feel like his arguments do have merit. Why don’t we just make an agreement that you cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of his followers, good or bad? Likewise, why not agree that a person such as Joseph Stalin does not represent any kind of coherent atheistic philosophy, and refrain from saying (as you frequently do) that this is where atheism inevitably leads? I am an atheist, and I have no more interest in setting up political prisons or Gulags than you have in owning slaves.

You also write:

“I have made the argument in the book that the Christian church has opposed slavery from the beginning. In no way did I mean to imply that there haven’t been Christians who have been disobedient to the Scripture and the teachings of the church. There have been all through history. There are millions today who claim to be followers of Christ but who do not follow Christ’s commands. All of us, even the strongest believers, are under the effects of the Fall.”

While I would agree that you could not fault Christianity for a misapplication of the teachings in the Bible, we are not talking here about people who read clear injunctions against slavery and rebelled against them. We are talking precisely about what it says in the Bible that clearly supports slavery. For better or worse, Stringfellow seems to me to have been a sincere Christian who genuinely believed that he was acting in accordance with the clear commands of the Bible. The Bible said to hold slaves, and he preached that Christians should hold slaves.

“I also cannot justify the words of the Old Testament. It was a recognition by God to His covenant people of a practice that was wide-spread at that time in every culture, that His people would encounter. But it is in no way carried forward into the New Testament. My argument, remember, turns on the teachings of the Christian church and the New Testament.”

Of course. I have to say I appreciate your honest recognition of some ethical failings in the teachings of the Old Testament; I think it’s very forthright of you.

Yet, the Christian Bible contains both the Old and New Testaments, and Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) Throughout the New Testament, Jesus never explicitly says that slavery is forbidden; on the contrary, he gives further instructions on how to treat one’s slaves rather than taking the opportunity to abolish this practice.

On page 178 of The Faith, you do cite a verse on where Paul of Tarsus says “there is neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28) as an example of the New Testament’s opposition to slavery. I don’t see this as a very strong condemnation, however, considering that the same passage also says that there is neither male nor female. That would have interesting implications for our definition of marriage, don’t you think? 😉 I find it hard to believe that Paul was literally saying there are no genders; only that a person’s identity in life ultimately doesn’t matter. That isn’t much of a case to free your slaves, any more than it is a case to get a sex change.

You also mentioned 1 Timothy 1:10 as condemning slave traders. It’s hard to be sure that this is what is meant by the context. The King James Version of the Bible says “menstealers,” which is somewhat ambiguous. The New American Standard and several other versions simply say “kidnappers.” Since many of the Old Testament passages regarding slavery indicate that slaves were either sold by their parents or captured as prisoners of war, this also doesn’t seem to work as a blanket condemnation of the practice.

It certainly is not my intent to argue over what is the correct Biblical interpretation. Clearly you have a more vested interest in that than I do; to me, the Bible is just a book with some good things, some bad things, and some ambiguous things in it. My point here isn’t that the pro-slavery interpretation is right or not; it’s just that the Bible on its own really can’t, and hasn’t been, the final arbiter of moral truth. Reading the Bible, it’s clear that reasonable people can disagree, and their interpretation of which meaning is best will likely be colored by their social background. I have no doubt that before the civil war, a relatively large number of people believed the Bible to be pro-slavery, while today relatively few do.

What this says to me is that morality has an undeniable cultural component, and this worldly influence can be a force for positive as well as negative. I don’t think you’re comfortable with this claim, but I think the whole slavery issue should make it fairly clear that this is true even if the Bible is treated as one possible source of moral values. I would venture to say that we as a society and as a culture are better off now, in terms of quality of life, than we would have been if we had stuck to the old Biblical traditions — both those that turned a blind eye to slavery, and those that explicitly endorsed it.

Open thread on today’s show

I’m actually typing this with about 15 minutes left to go in the program. But we’ve already had the epic 48-minute sequel discussion with Matt Slick, and I’m sure people will have a lot of feedback.

Generally speaking, I think Slick really got his deer-in-the-headlights thing on when Matt D. pointed out the distinction — which Slick pointedly refused to recognize, whether he really didn’t or was just pretending not to in order to defend his position — between logical absolutes as essential properties of reality, and the discipline of logic which we as thinking beings use to understand reality. In an uninhabited universe with no minds, a rock is still a rock and not a mushroom. Slick insisted this could not be the case, conflating the logical process by which we understand “A=A” with the physical object “A,” the rock. Then, in order to take control of a discussion that was getting away from him, he got Matt D. bogged down by demanding that Matt D. define a “third option” beyond “physical” and “conceptual”. I think Matt D. slipped up a little here, in that he let himself get flustered and angry at Slick’s little Mexican Hat Dance around his salient criticism of TAG, as well as by Slick’s aggressive subject-changing and obfuscation. I wish Matt D. had just asked, “So is God conceptual?”

On the whole, though, Matt D. mopped the floor with Slick, because Slick’s only response to Matt’s pointing out the contradiction in claiming absolutes to be both conceptual and not contingent on minds was to say, basically, “Nuh-uh.” Slick’s exercise in distracting and flustering Matt was quite intentional. Having done this for years, I recognize the argumentation tactic of “if you can’t beat ’em, piss ’em off” that apologists employ as a matter of course.

But did you catch the part where Slick essentially admitted God could not be omnipotent, because God could not do anything to defy a logical absolute? Which Matt D. then pointed out proved that God had to be contingent upon logical absolutes and not the author of them? To which Slick again responded with “Nuh-uh”? Based on today’s call, it seems clear to me that all Slick is doing with TAG is trying to find a way to call logic “God.”

Great episode, though. Discuss amongst yourselves.

They do homophobia bigger in Utah!

If you haven’t seen this delirious anti-gay ad that recently ran in the Salt Lake City paper, placed by, one of those patriotism-is-the-last-refuge-of-scoundrels Christian hate groups, you haven’t lived. I don’t know what’s funnier here. Just basking in the raving paranoia and idiocy (seriously, people, if you really believe your own marriages will be devalued by letting gay couples marry, then your marriages aren’t worth shit to begin with); trying to count the misspellings and number of fonts used; or simply having a chuckle over the we-didn’t-catch-the-irony use of such words as “backdoor”.

Enjoy. And, uh, think of the children.

But there’s more. Here’s an example of thermostupid right from their website, copied as written, without editing or corrections.

They are using intimadation to gain ground and are lying to the public, ALL THEY WANT IS MARRIAGE RIGHTS to valdite their relationship of the same-sex!!! THEY ALREADY HAVE THE RIGHT to Marry, a gay man can marry a gay woman!

Comedy frickin’ gold!

Another friggin’ post on the Transcendental Argument :)

I’m never prouder of the Atheist Community of Austin than when we all manage to pull together in a discussion about serious topics of philosophy and presentation strategy. Last night six of us got together in an Austin coffeehouse to discuss several issues for the show, and for the first hour we went over Matt Slick’s Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) with a fine-toothed comb. I see that Martin has already outlined several conclusions of that conversation admirably, so I won’t need to go over all of it. I’ll defer to his well-written response.

At this point people who are interested in arguments and not a glimpse at behind-the-scenes process might want to skip down to the bold header below, where I will take up one final argument against TAG.

We have received a veritable flood of comments about the Matt Slick call: by email, on the blog (both here and here), on the Iron Chariots forum, and on my favorite hangout, the Atheist Fools board (115 posts at the time of this writing). All told, there have been several hundred comments about that episode, which I think probably makes it one of the most talked-about episodes ever.

That didn’t necessarily make it a good episode, of course. The feedback has been mixed, and I’ve listened to all kinds of criticism that I take very seriously. Matt D called me almost as soon as the show was over to vent his frustrations about some aspects of the call. While most of the email and online comments have been positive, an uncomfortably high number of them have also said that Don and I handled the call “disgracefully,” that we were rude and impatient, and that Matt Slick was right to call us out for interrupting him a lot. A couple even said it put them off the show permanently.

I don’t dismiss these comments. We’re only human. In a 1997 article from the Internet Infidels library, Michael Martin says:

“Ignorance of TAG is hardly surprising since it plays no role in the position of the most famous contemporary religious apologists and is not covered in standard texts in the philosophy of religion. In fact, I myself was unaware of it when I published a book on atheism in which I spend hundreds of pages refuting theistic arguments (Martin, 1990).”

I wouldn’t say that I’ve never heard the TAG before, but because it’s never been a common argument from our callers, I’ve never given it a lot much consideration at all. I’ve been told that I was rushing so much to find a contradiction in Slick’s logic that I jumped ahead to parts of the argument that hadn’t been made yet, allowing Slick to make us look bad by saying that he wasn’t saying those things at all.

Of course, reading his argument online, it’s crystal clear that he damn well was going to say many of those things, but apparently wild indignation at not being allowed to talk is Mr. Slick’s style. Commenter KaylaKaze pointed us to a debate Slick had with the Rational Response Squad. He was allowed to speak uninterrupted for much longer periods of time, and yet he still complained about how he wasn’t allowed to keep talking.

It’s a fine line to walk. Matt D and others who gave feedback are absolutely right that I should have exhibited more patience and let him go through more of the argument without interrupting. I also regret being a little more jokey than usual, appearing to dismiss and ridicule Mr. Slick. However, give an apologist too much air time and he’s liable to pull a Gish Gallop, presenting a long stream of misconceptions that must be gone over in great detail. So as Martin says, Monday morning quarterbacking is easy, and I’ve done plenty of it myself; being in the position makes it trickier to see the long view.

I received some excellent advice from Motley Fool poster jgc123, who said:

“When you are hearing a new argument, admit that it is a new one or one that you have not worked through as thoroughly as the others. Or just tell the person that you are not sure you understand their version of the argument and keep asking questions until you are really ready to respond. If necessary, pull a Larry King and let them have the stage for the full hour, after which you invite them to come back. You can’t win anybody over by not listening to them.”

Words to live by. Thank you, everyone, for your feedback, both good and bad.

TAG Redux

Martin already did a great job recapping the highlights of our discussion from last night, but there’s just one more point I’d like to raise with regard to the specific form of TAG that Matt Slick used, and he doesn’t address this one on his website. Essentially it’s a reformulation of the well-known Euthyphro Dilemma, which we refer to a lot on the show.

In point 6A, the TAG argument states that “Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature,” and therefore their existence is necessarily contingent on the existence of a mind (such as God’s) to conceive them. For example, the law of identity, “A is A,” is true only because it is held in a perfect mind. You’ll notice that in point 4C, Slick says that “Logical Absolutes are not dependent on people,” and the reason he gives is that people’s minds are different and may contradict each other. Presumably this includes a mind contradicting itself by having different opinions at different points in time. So here’s my question:

Can God change his mind?

I suspect that Slick would say that God is eternally correct and unchanging, but let’s clarify that question. Suppose God said “A is not A.” Would the laws of logic then change? If he says that they do, then logical absolutes are no longer so absolute; they are subject to the whims of a capricious mind, and we’re back to the same problem that Slick highlighted in 4C.

However if, as I suspect, the answer is that God cannot change his mind — if he is logically bound to uphold the unalterable truth that A is A — then God isn’t the author of logical absolutes at all. His mind is an extraneous addition to the question. With or without God’s mind, things would still be equal to themselves.

Thus, as a proof for the logical necessity of God, the TAG fails.

In conclusion, please be sure to catch next week’s show with Matt and Tracie. Our hosts have the benefit of a week-long conversation under their belts, and they’ll be taking the topic up again. Matt has encouraged Matt Slick to call back again, and while he may not do so — I am also in possession of a rather testy email protesting his treatment — there will be discussion on the topic either way.

As I said in my lecture about atheist evangelism, you don’t learn to play games well without exposing yourself to toug
h opponents and acknowledging weaknesses in your own style. The TV show has always been a learning process for all of us, and I thank you all for giving me the opportunity to learn through error as your host.