On AETV today

Matt’s still out sick, so it’ll be me and Tracie today. One of the things I’ll be doing is responding to an email from a young atheist viewer in Italy, who’s asked for help in arguments he’s having with a Christian professor. I thought this one would be fun to smash live for all to see, instead of just via email response. The professor makes statements in his email to this viewer reflecting such poor thinking that, if the educational system in Italy is so bad that a man this stupid can achieve a career in academia, then it frankly makes Texas look not so bad.

See you on UStream in about 4 hours! Consider this post an open discussion thread on today’s show.

Next time, pray to recognize confirmation bias

A viewer wrote to say that he is a former Christian, but became a Jew rather than an atheist because of an experience he had as a teenager. He asked: “Please tell me if the following story should be proof to me that there is a God and what you would think if it happened to YOU.”

One day when I was a Christian I was praying to God and saying, “God please let me meet somebody to witness to today”. Later that day a man just walked up to me out of nowhere and said, “If your religion goes bad do you go bad with it?” I said “No” and he said “Thank you” and walked off. I had always wondered if there is no God, how my prayers got answered when nobody heard me praying that day in the car since I was praying under my breath and the doors were closed.

I replied:

It’s an interesting story, but does not impress me as an outside observer as much as it obviously impressed you when you were in the situation.

People in general are notoriously bad at calculating the odds of an event occurring. Events which strike us as “unlikely” are actually fairly commonplace, especially because we are able to invent patterns and attach significance to a very wide range of possible events. For example, the request you made was extremely unspecific, and could have been fulfilled by all kinds of different things happening over a long period of time. You said that the person came up to you “later that day,” which doesn’t make it nearly as interesting if, say, you had prayed and somebody had shown up immediately. And “meet somebody to witness to today” isn’t all that specific either — you might well have tried harder to push some kind of religious topic into any conversation you had that day, and seen it as scoring a hit. The witnessing you actually did in the end (you were asked a question and you gave a one-syllable answer) doesn’t strike me as especially significant, although I’m sure it struck you that way at the time.

People are also very susceptible to confirmation bias. Stuff happens every day that does not seem significant, but when it matches some kind of expectation we have, we tend to notice that one event and attach special importance to it, while ignoring all the other things that didn’t fit our conception of something unusual or miraculous. For instance: in your story you didn’t specify if that was the only time in your young life that you ever prayed for anything, but I bet it wasn’t. And I’ll bet that you didn’t waste too much thought on all the times you tossed out a casual prayer and nothing happened.

If you wanted to do a real test of the power of faith, you shouldn’t need to say “God, please cause [some fairly commonplace event] to happen before [some fairly long span of time] has elapsed.” You ought to be able to say: “God, please let a bird with blue spots and a crooked beak fly past my window within the next ten seconds.” If something that specific happened in that small time span, that would be interesting. If you could repeat this demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer multiple times consistently, that would be really interesting.

As it is, the impression I get from your story was “I prayed for something just barely unusual to happen eventually, and on this one occasion it did.” If that’s the main reason why you’re a theist today, then I think I can say with confidence that I could have experienced an identical occurrence and still not acquire your faith.

Heartless

So there’s this young man of Japanese/Italian descent, name of Takumi, by all accounts very smart and outgoing, with fluency in seven languages. He’s suffering from a condition called Ventricular Septal Defect. He has three holes in his heart, and this year alone he’s already had two heart attacks and a stroke. It would be nice to know this young fellow had the support of a loving and devoted family to see him through his health crisis. But that’s not the case, you see, because Takumi is gay, and his family are devout churchgoers. So instead of getting him proper medical care, they beat him up and threw him out of house and home. Because being religious is all about that family values thing, of course.

Happily, we live in the Internet age, and so with the help of online donations and spreading the word via social networks, Takumi’s been getting by, barely. One can only cringe at the thought of all the gay kids living 20 years ago, who didn’t have these resources to fall back on. How many gay sons and daughters, who only wanted a little love and someone to call family, have been killed by hearts hardened into hate by religion? (Hey, not bad, that one. It’s nice when you can combine a rant with some alliteration.)

The Vatican: A Nation of Sexual Perverts

It seems that the Vatican has been in the news a lot lately. It appears that the Pope was personally involved in a pedophilia cover up. A scandal has broken in Brazil. There’s an international inquiry into a Catholic cult and its sexual-predator leader who was a favorite of John Paul. A Vatican homosexual prostitution ring was exposed. Given the frequency and longevity of these problems, one can be certain there are systematic problems with the Catholic Church and its leadership.

It seems very clear to me that the sexual perversions of the Catholic Church are systematic, of their own making, and that they are powerless to fix them. Let’s take a look at the contributing causes.

  1. Sexual control. The Vatican would like to control everyone’s sexuality. Most people don’t like to be controlled and people will be sexual despite attempts at control. One of the side effects of abstinence-only sex education and virginity pledges, for example, was that teenagers opted for “porn star sex,” to circumvent the control. The Vatican has mandated the missionary position and prohibited condoms for its laity to increase the number of potential future tithers. In the US, most Catholics ignore such mandates. Priests don’t get to ignore the Vatican, so they have to find their outlets somewhere outside the realm of normal sexuality.
  2. Guilt. Promoting guilt has been a holy cash cow for the Vatican. Believers are held to an unreasonable standard of being “without sin.” They fail by design and have to confess their sins and receive penance. The mechanism reinforces the guilt and binds the believers closer to the church. The vicious cycle perpetuates with the church gaining control over the believer. When guilt is combined with sexuality, it can become part of the fetish. Forbidden fruit is sweeter and the more forbidden, the better. Promoting guilt about sex has the inevitable consequence of warping sexuality.
  3. False hope. A person who is aware he has a problem will gravitate to an institution that purports to have a solution. By promising an omnipotent entity that can solve any problem, the Vatican draws in the people who are most desperate for a “cure.” Such people are most likely to embrace the dogma and blame themselves when it fails. From an outside perspective, it is clear that the Vatican has yet to “cure” anyone.
  4. Convenient cover. Positions of authority and trust provide the best cover for someone who should not be trusted. Such a person can abuse the authority while publicly condemning exactly what he is doing in private. If a predator has risen high enough in the ranks, he can even use his authority to ensure he will never be investigated or, if he is, avoid damaging penalties. The recent case of Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado is just one example.
  5. Temptation. Any organization playing a public service role will provide many opportunities for interaction with people who can be easily persuaded to “return a favor.” Service organizations that focus on children are naturally going to attract pedophiles.
  6. Abuse of power. By playing the role of “father” and “the representative of God,” priests have a variety of ways of manipulating the victim. Threat of God’s wrath can make a potent silencer. Most victims have already given the church a great deal of control over their lives. It is very difficult to extract ones self from such a web. Even if a victim is steadfast in defending himself or herself, he or she can be bullied by agreeing to be silent in exchange for a payoff. A less powerful organization would not have the luxury of this bullying. Most people who donate to a church are not aware of the percentage of their “charitable donations” are used to perpetuate abuse. Moving abusive priests between churches is an obvious abuse of power. So is actively obstructing investigations, as the Pope has done. He even claimed diplomatic immunity as head of the Vatican to evade a lawsuit.
  7. Evasion of responsibility. The Vatican’s response to the pedophilia scandal has been a long study in the art of responsibility evasion. The Vatican has blamed the victims, gays, the “permissive culture” of the United States, gays again, the devil, and gays. They have whined that the abuse scandal interferes with their “charity work.” They have whined about the cost of reparations and how they can’t afford it and they will go bankrupt. They have insisted that church-state separation allows them to do anything they want without consequences. They have said they were unaware that pedophilia was harmful to the victims. They have blamed the moral character of the priests (deflecting from the systematic cover up). They have pretended to self-police. They have prayed, confessed, and invoked God. They have cried “religious persecution.” They have claimed that other professions have just as many pedophiles. I don’t know of anything they haven’t done or said to deflect responsibility for their problem. The Vatican is quick, however, to make pronouncements about sex or condoms while claiming moral authority from God. Such ballsy displays of hypocrisy should lead to worldwide ridicule – not blind subservience.
  8. Complicity of the laity. Despite decades of controversy, Catholic laity still funds the church. Such people clearly care more about magic crackers than their fellow human beings. Non-Catholic Christians have also abetted the crimes of the Catholic Church through the bogus concept of religious tolerance and “thou shalt not judge.” This complicity has meant that the systematic abuses of the Catholic Church in the US have gone largely unpunished by the US legal system. Fortunately, other countries value their citizens above long-standing pedophile rings. Perhaps some justice will come from Europe.

Of these eight causes, the first six are intimately tied with the Catholicism. It is unlikely these causes will ever change. The last two are more about how the public responds to the abuse. While the Catholic Church will always be a spawning ground for sexual perversion, public outcry has some potential to limit the power of the Catholic Church and reduce its numbers. There is clearly no God available to clean up their mess, but the proper application of secular laws and lawsuits can go a long way to cleaning up this festering problem and reducing the number of future victims.

Should U.S. Law Require Church Approval?

On page one of Monday’s Austin American-Statesman, the headline (“House Approves Health Care Bill”) dealt with the passage of the new healthcare reform bill. One issue that was contentious was the way abortion would be handled. Whether you agree with healthcare reform or not, whether you agree with abortion choice or not, this quote, within the article, should send a shiver down your spine:

“A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed skepticism that the order would satisfy the church’s objections.”

I didn’t realize U.S. law needed to even consider church objections. But there you go.

In case you’re feeling prankish on Facebook…

There’s an amusing page called Pray for Richard Dawkins, and it’s maintained, as you might guess, by someone guzzling whine-and-cheese by the gallon.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Richard Dawkins’s story reads very much like Paul’s. Dawkins is arguably the most influential atheist and persecutor (although not physical) of Christians in the world today. Like Paul, he believes that Jesus is a lie. Like Paul, he’s a well-respected leader of a movement that opposes Jesus. Like Paul, his conversion would be nothing short of a miracle from God, and an amazing witness to people everywhere.

I’m dying to know exactly how and when Dawkins has ever “persecuted” anybody. Unless, of course, this is the typical Christian usage of the term “persecution,” usually parsed as “Waaah, you’re not validating me! You’re telling me my beliefs are wrong, and I can’t respond to you, and that takes away my feelings of entitlement! How dare you disagree and make me feel stupid!” I’d say that’s pretty well confirmed by their careful admission that Dawkins’ “persecution” is “not physical.” Then what, simple disagreement with your beliefs is “persecution”? Yeah, asshole, tell that to someone who knows what persecution really looks like — they’re the ones with numbers tattooed on their arms — and see how sympathetic they are.

Bogus “persecution” claimed as an exercise in ostentatious self-regard is, of course, the Christian’s problem, not the atheist’s. But what else is funny is how the screed goes on to reveal how silly Christian beliefs are, and how its own most devout believers don’t think through the ramifications of what their faith calls them to do.

To wit: the page owner is flush with excitement at the prospect of Dawkins’ possible conversion. An “amazing witness,” to be sure! And so the point of the page, apparently — because if it weren’t for his Facebook fans God would just be totally SOL — is to rally Christians to pray en masse for just such a miraculous conversion. Evidently God can’t be bothered to give prayers a hearing unless they’re part of a class action.

But wait a teeny tiny little sec. Isn’t God supposed to be omniscient and everything? And if that’s so, isn’t he pretty well aware of Dawkins and his very public atheism already? It’s not as if he needs a heads-up. So wouldn’t he already have made up his mind, knowing the future infallibly and all, about converting Dawkins? Suggesting otherwise just makes both God and his followers sound like some idiot kids in a chatroom.

Xian4Ever yo HeavFather whats up?!?

YHWH Im good, my child

Xian4Ever dude I mean God there’s like this d-bag Dawkins? Totally wrote a book, talking shit saying you dont exist!!!1! Srsly!

YHWH ORLY? WTF!!

Xian4Ever No shit its like a WHOLE FUCKING BOOK. Says your like a teapot or something

YHWH OMme! Heh no worries, I’ll totally school that bitch LOL

Xian4Ever LOL!!!

No, something tells me an omniscient God would pretty much already have a fellow like Dawkins on his radar. Which, of course, prompts the question of why said conversion hasn’t occurred yet. After all, Scripture does make it abundantly clear that God, once he’d had enough of Saul’s bullshit, just came right down and laid the divine smackdown on the guy, and it wasn’t as if he needed a bunch of Facebookers jamming the prayer lines then. No, God just got shit done.

So either God knows, and he’s waiting for some great stage moment for maximum dramatic effect. Or maybe he wants Dawkins to remain an atheist. Maybe God’s divine plan is to reward not the believers, but the skeptics, the more vocal the better, for using their gift of reason so well. Or maybe God just doesn’t care. Or maybe he’s just made up.

Anyway, if you’re on Facebook, I think ‘twould be amusing to flood the page’s membership with atheists cheering Dawkins on, eh? If Dawkins’ fans vastly outnumber the prayer “warriors,” maybe that’ll get God’s attention and get that miracle conversion underway, eh? Or it may just be another opportunity to mock playfully how childish the whole concept of God really is.

Randi comes out

While it would be lovely to live in a world where this sort of thing didn’t matter, we just aren’t in that world. And it’s always courageous to stand up for who and what you are in a world where hate and intolerance are so institutionalized, even if it takes you into your 80′s before you do it.

Now again, compare how positive and life affirming such outings are in the case of Randi, Neil Patrick Harris, and other prominent figures who have recently done so, to how negative and fraught with anguish, self-loathing, and confusion it is in the case of conservative and religious figures whose delayed moments of self-awareness have to clash with a lifetime’s indoctrination in the ideologies of fear. I think people ought to be much more worried about catching teh God than teh gay.

Matt and Russell speaking at Bradley University

Edited March 23 with more accurate information. Check BU’s posts in the comment section for more details on the schedule, including dinners and a magic show.

I think the details have been finalized for this, so I’m going to go ahead and post it here.

As we mentioned on the last Non-Prophets, Matt and I have been booked to speak at Bradley University in Peoria, IL on Friday, April 9 and Saturday, April 10. We will be in room 126 the Caterpillar Global Communications Center (GCC) at 5:00 PM, and Saturday at 2:00 PM.

We expect a mostly theist crowd. On Friday we’ll be doing a sort of Atheism 101 discussion. Saturday we’ll go over common apologetic fallacies. On both days we will leave ample time for questions. I’m guessing it should be pretty similar to watching a taping of TAE, except that the “callers” will be live in the lecture hall.

The sponsor is the Bradley Skeptic Society, so keep an eye on their web page in case of updates email [email protected] for more information, and watch this blog for updates. Tickets are not required, but it is first come, first seated in a 200 seat lecture hall. I certainly don’t imagine we’d draw a Dawkins-sized crowd, but come early if you want to be certain of getting in.

Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently had an exchange with a fellow atheist, and wrote quite a bit about a lot of different topics. A few observations I made could be of interest on this list, so I decided to post one or two things from that dialog. Well, that and I felt a need to prove I can post a “normal sized” blog entry.

On Anti-Atheist Prejudice
We get regular letters from young people (and on occasion older ones) who say they’re afraid to “come out”–in the same way a child might be scared to tell his parents he’s gay. Or they say they’ve lost their faith, and now their spouse has withdrawn from them, and their relationship is frozen. People who believe don’t understand there is this deep-seated prejudice. They think “nobody’s forcing you to believe anything–stop your whining.” But they don’t understand their son or daughter is in their bedroom upstairs writing to a group of atheist strangers on the Internet they’ve seen on Youtube saying, “I think my parents will throw me out of the house if I tell them I don’t believe in god.” And the kid is writing to us because he can tell us about his deepest beliefs–but he can’t speak to his own parents about his thoughts and feelings. How sad is that, really? If I were a parent, I don’t think anything would make me feel more like a failure than to find out my child was confiding in absolute strangers rather than me, because I had convinced him through my comments and prejudices that I would despise him if he told me what he really believes or who he really is. But I can guarantee you that if these parents found these letters–they’d hammer the kid about contacting us, and not reflect on their own views that made their kid so distrustful of their capacity to accept and love him despite any ideological differences. This is the stuff that really breaks my heart when I read it.

On Missing the Forest for the Trees
[A particular theist] won’t move toward replacing [religion] with Humanism, because he accepts there is a god. In one conversation he defends the idea of considering it a miracle if there is a horrible plane crash where everyone, except one child, dies. Focus on the child who survived–not the 200 people who just lost their lives. This sort of microscopic focus is par for the course with religious people. I once likened the Intelligent Design argument to Wile E. Coyote’s inventions. The believer has this amazing capacity to focus on a few specks of things and make them meaningful–totally disregarding this ridiculously vast universe in which we float amid vacuums, and radiation, and supernovas and hurtling comets–just a mess of chaos held together through physical laws. Somehow they are able to drill down to “people” and say that demonstrates a “purpose” to the whole mechanism. That would represent one of the most inefficient designs ever produced–if people on Earth really are the point of this whole universe. All this for some speck of existence in some far corner? And yet they see this as crystal clear. If you believe god exists and is good, and you can discount 200 dead bodies (and 99.9 percent of the universe) for one child–what ratio of bad to good would it take even to get you to say, “Even if this god exists, what a monster”?

On Responsibility
I like that you break down Euthyphro briefly as well. Christians rarely break this down. They seem to just have some amorphous surface sense of getting morality from god/the Bible–but don’t really consider it as a question of how that mechanism would function. After talking to them, you get to a point where they assert basically that you can use your personal (presumably god-given) morality to judge god as good, but you can’t judge god as bad. In my own mind, if I can’t fathom how a command could be moral, then I shouldn’t follow it, regardless of who issued it. To do so is immoral because to do so is irresponsible–but that’s faith, right? Kill your own child if god requests it. What I would say is that I can’t take responsibility for a thing if I don’t understand what I’m being asked to do. “Just following orders” is not an example of personal responsibility. But the Christian sees a “responsibility to god” as being on a higher order. They see the atheist exercising personal responsibility as wrong–since the atheist is not shouldering his “responsibility to god.” We end up being “irresponsible” for wanting to know exactly what we’re doing and what the reasons and implications are for the action, before we’ll do it.

The skeptic, however, looks at it like this: If it seems bad to kill my own child, I need to ask for an explanation–and refuse to comply until I get it. If I’m going to commit an atrocity, I think it’s fair to at least ask to know why I’m being asked to commit it. To you and I, that’s reasonable. The idea anyone would object to it is mystifying.

However, the theist sees this as presumptuous and arrogant. I will admit there may be some good reason I hadn’t thought of that would get me to comply; but I can’t say I’m “taking responsibility for my actions” if I’m simply deferring to a fiat-style command with no personal understanding of what I’m doing. In no other context, outside religion, would either the theist or the atheist consider that a description of “being responsible.”

So, in Christianity, if you want to take real responsibility for your actions, by understanding thoroughly what you’re doing, you end up being labeled someone who “does what he wants” because he doesn’t like responsibility–you refuse to own up to your “responsibility to god.”

Summary
In the end, I added notes about what I posted previously–that the doctrine of total depravity makes it more “sensible” to trust people who say you can’t trust them, than people who consider themselves and others fairly trustworthy. And I noted how in the post on hymns, the idea of a brutal human sacrifice is trotted out as an example of unmatched love and mercy. Ultimately I ended the exchange with this thought:

What would it take to screw a person’s head on this “wrongly”? I submit it takes the first several years of their life spent in a Sunday School with mom and/or dad endorsing the entire process.