A Skeptic’s Wager?

I got this on my Facebook newsfeed, and wanted to share. It’s like a skeptic’s Pascal’s Wager, but works much better. The question came up as to whether it can be labeled with a catchy title like “Pascal’s Wager”? Any ideas?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but…will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” —Marcus Aurelius

Sharing the “Good News”

Because now and again, we ought to share one of these letters:

I know you probably won’t have time to respond to this but I just wanted to send a little email saying how much of an impact you’ve had on my belief system and honestly, my life.

I was a Christian for six years, (I’m currently a 19 year old male) and only recently did I start caring about whether or not I had justification for my belief. I had always just gone with what my parents told me. I mean why would they lie or give me bad information? Even though I would occasionally ask questions on WHY they believe, I would be looked downed upon for asking those things. Well I started to do some research and found your myriad of videos. I was always a critical and skeptical thinker (outside of the self justifying circular religious arguments) and enjoyed listening to you guys speak. Finally, the taboo questions my family would tell me to disregard were being addressed. The way you debate and get down to the heart of the issues is simply poetic.

Things like morality, evolution, and the big bang… Things that I was oblivious to because of my upbringing. Turns out my biggest issue was simplpy: knowledge. And a lack thereof. I didn’t know about cosmic background radiation, or what evolution actually asserts. (Funny thing, my high school biology teacher was a Christian and tried to make everything sound so far-fetched, that magic from God was the only rational option.)

The story of Jepthah, and the laws in Leviticus, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. Rape victims who don’t scream loud enough are in the wrong? Laws on how to properly beat your slaves? Even if the argument is “Well it was appropriate for that time period” you’re still siding with an intelligent being who allowed and even promoted those things. Sounds like people of the time period thought it was good.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get behind a God with the knowledge I have now. It’s finally possible for me to be a good person without being shackled to religion. I can now ask questions and live being open-minded. The answers that once were “God did it” are now “I don’t know”, and those humble three words allow for a search of more knowledge than I never thought possible. How was the universe created? We’re not sure, but we have a pretty decent idea supported by evidence, and let’s try to find out more! Who knows how much knowledge and technology would have come to a halt, had people accepted “Whelp, God did it!”. It’d be plain detrimental to the advancement of humanity.

If you’ve read this far, Matt, I love you, and thanks for doing what you’re doing. You make a huge difference and probably don’t get told that enough…Thank you for the atheist experience.

(Oh and that 10% of my income back really helps in paying the bills.)

And just to add, I didn’t edit one word of it. Note how much more literate this sounds than letters that are critical of us! Sorry, couldn’t pass that up.

Is Cherry Picking a Good Thing?

This is actually a question I can see both sides of, even though I know which side I come down on. And recently a fan wrote in to express the following:

I’m ok with cherry picking religious beliefs in general because I think that it has helped push beliefs towards a more beneficial outcome. Today you hear people claiming that the Christian God is Love and other such nonsense, but I’d rather them intentionally ignore the bad parts in their holy book than to accept it all unquestioningly if they’re going to believe in both cases already.

He raised some good points about how it’s good many Muslims are moderate–and not like their more fanatical counterparts. I get the point, I really do. But here are my thoughts:

This is a question with no answer. Someone recently posted on Facebook an article about an American association of physicians who initially came out with a position that it’s OK to “nick” infant female genitalia as a substitute for a full female circumcision–which they feared some families would go back to the old country to get if doctors here wouldn’t do it. However, they then reversed their stance to say that, in fact, doctors should counsel and support the families, but not perform any such ritualistic procedures.

What should they do? Should they cause small harm, in order to mitigate greater harm? Or should they stand firm against all harm?

I compared it in a recent dialog to chemo therapy. Some chemo treatments have long-term, or even permanent awful effects on people’s bodies. But the idea is that this toxic cocktail will save someone’s life, so we induce harm, in order to mitigate worse harm. And most people agree this is the right course. BUT, what if we found a cure for cancer that inflicted no harm tomorrow, but some oncologists insisted upon continuing to use chemo treatments? Would it still be the right course of action?

Making religion somewhat less toxic, I can see, is preferable to having it be fully toxic. But I personally, as a reformed Christian myself, know that there is a cure available that eliminates the harm altogether. And with that knowledge, I can’t, in good conscience, pursue the course of mitigating harm, when a cure that eliminates the harm is available.


I can’t speak for everyone–but this is how I view it and how I address the problem.


And I think it also covers the “cherry picking” question. To support a book that encourages subjugation of women and killing other people who don’t believe what you do, to me, is inexcusable. It would be like joining the KKK because you like the social networking, but reject the racist agendas.


So, for what it’s worth?

What’s Wrong with the Term “Spiritual”?

Here is a letter we received recently from a viewer asking why we don’t use the term “spiritual” over at AETV, along with my response beneath:

Original Letter
I am a big fan of the show and I myself am an atheist. I agree with probably 99% of what you guys talk about, but there is a minor thing that erks me that I just wanted to share. Let me just say that i am not the best writer but I will try to formulate my words the best I can to convey my ideas to you.

I don’t understand what is so wrong with the word “spiritual”. I know that most of you, if not all of you don’t believe in the existence of a soul or a spirit (neither do I), but the way I feel, many interpret the word having to do with the mind and body in a connection with nature or the universe (maybe sort of a high), not necessarily a soul or a spirit.


For example, having a lucid dream or an
out of body experience could be described as spiritual. Also, I think the word can have to do with nature, and a feeling of the mind and body, or a profound oneness with nature. A work of art or a piece of music could be said to be spiritual for giving you some heightened sense, nothing to do with any spirits at all. This is an emotive word. I guess what I am trying to say is the English language is full of these sort of context particular words, and I think you guys DO understand what the person MEANS in a given context, as speakers of English. Why give people a hard time about this word? I think it makes sense? I think it is just the morphology of the word that bugs you, but words themselves take on extensions of meaning and language changes all the time. It a lot of times is to do with a mind-body-nature thing. Does this make sense?


Also, one more thing. I find it very ironic that you guys have no problem with the word “supernatural”. I hear you guys use this word all the time. What does THAT mean? In my opinion, there is no such thing as supernatural (literally speaking). Sure all words have linguistic application, like the word spiritual, but think about the word supernatural for just a second. In reality, there is no such thing; NOTHING is supernatural. Let’s say for example, just hypothetically, that ghosts really did exist. Even if ghosts do really exist, then they would be part of the natural world (just not part of what we understand). Even though we can’t prove them or study them or explain them scientifically, a scientific explanation exist, even if we never find it. Just like if there was a God and the whole nine yards of any religious claim were in fact true, a scientific explanation exist whether or not we are capable of ever finding it. So I honestly don’t understand what you guys mean when you say “supernatural”. Do you mean “fiction” or “unproven”? Perhaps “mythological”? Just wanted to point out that supernatural is also a blurry word. The word supernatural is a paradox..The dictionary says “existing outside the natural world” but NOTHING EXISTS OUTSIDE THE NATURAL WORLD, OR IT WOULD NOT EXIST AT ALL. That was all I wanted to get off my chest. Keep up the good work with the show; I wish we had more people like you guys out there on TV to encourage critical thinking


My Reply

Yes, we are aware some people use “spiritual” to describe secular functions. But the word has a very powerful religious meaning as well. We can’t force anyone to use or not use any words, but when atheists or skeptics use this word, it’s an invitation for theists to misapply. We see this all the time whenever a scientist who is also an atheist so much as mentions “god” in the most off-hand or metaphorical way. There are no end of theists who try and assert that people like Einstein or Hawking were not atheists, because of some metaphorical language they may have used. Recently, as an example, I saw an old Dawkins lecture online. He mentioned that between biologists, they refer to the results of natural selection as “design”–but they don’t dare use that term publicly, due to the reality that religious people will jump all over it and distort it to death and try to use it as a means to claim even biologists recognize the work of god.


Whether or not you personally see that as any compelling reason to check your language is up to you. But I don’t want to provide theists any more ridiculous ammo than they already think they have, so I avoid borrowing their terminology whenever possible–when I’m aware and thoughtful enough to understand “There are theists who are going to misappropriate this term.” Why use language that has clear supernatural definitions if there are other terms I can use that do not invite unwanted, but very legitimate misunderstandings?


On your other point regarding “supernatural,” can you point me to a video where anyone on our program–host/cohost–claims to believe it exists? We use the term because it has a meaning “that which is outside of or beyond nature.” Even though no atheist is compelled to not believe in the supernatural, I can assure you that nobody working on the program currently accepts that “supernature” exists. Additionally, we use the term “god” as well–but we don’t believe it exists. You talk about how easy it is for people to grasp what you mean by “spiritual” from your context; but, here you’ve just demonstrated how simple it is to distort what someone means when they use a term. We use supernature because it is a label for something we do not accept exists, and this appears to have been misconstrued by you–despite myriad conversations on the program, where we clearly use the term as something we reject.


I hope this helps you understand the position better; but I get you, or anyone, does not have to personally adopt it.

###

Hate Mail From Jesus

This little missive arrived this evening from the Son of God. That would be Jesus@ one of those free email hosts:

Yes, i saw your show and how you motherfuckers were dissing my Dad.
I just wanted to say FUCK U ALL. Hell is not a fun place motherfuckers. I died on the cross and sacrificed my life for you assholes to not only deny Me but my Father as well? GO TO HELL. ALL OF YOU ATHEISTS ARE GOING TO HELL YOU WILL BURN FOR ETERNATY. You will experince your gratest nightmares down there. How can you be so ungratefull for everything you have. You keep calling my Father and the “Invisible man up in the sky”. I guess he will just take air and gracity away since those are invisible as well and you probably dont belive in them as well.

Damn, Jesus. Not much gets by you, does it? The show’s only been on the air for going on 13 years, and already you’ve found us. Why, that’s almost as impressive as all those fulfilled prophecies.

One thing does disappoint me, though. I would have expected the messiah to be a better speller.

A Christian’s Life Is Worthless?

We received a letter recently from a viewer who wanted to know how to talk to a Christian friend of his.

“She’s a moderate Catholic, and I’m an atheist. A few days ago, we were talking about religion, which we had done many times before, and I was explaining my reasoning for not believing in God, or an afterlife. I explained that I’m happy we only have one life to live. I make the most of life because of this. She said if it was proved tomorrow that I’m right, and there’s no God, no afterlife, and that death is the end of everything, she would kill herself.”

His actual question, however, was this:

“I didn’t know what to say, except ‘that’s insane’. I want to offer her a better response, and maybe enlighten her. What would you recommend I say?”

Well, I’m tempted to say “that’s insane” about covers it, but I understand what he’s asking.

My personal thought is “It’s sad religion has messed this girl’s values up so horribly that she believes her life isn’t worth anything at all on its own.” To her, living is a horror worse than death. How non-life-affirming.

The obvious question is, “If you don’t value this life, except in the context of a prelude to an afterlife—why not kill yourself now and move to the next level?”

But as we know, she can’t, because she’s Catholic, and suicide is, therefore, taboo. This means she’ll have to suffer through this cesspool of horrors she despises so much she’d rather die—until she dies naturally.

Wow. And some Christians wonder why not everyone subscribes to their ideology?

This ranks right up there with theists who call the program or write to us to say, “Sure, I’d rape my own daughter if god said I should.”

Seriously, what else can a sane atheist say to the statement: “I’d rather die than have to change my ideology if, in fact, you can demonstrate to me it’s wrong?”

This is your brain on religion.

We’ve got competition

And I couldn’t be happier about it, as it looks like the show is off to a pretty good start. “Ask an Atheist” is a live public access call-in show based in Seattle, Washingon.

Of course it’s easy for me to enjoy since they are so obviously heavily influenced by The Atheist Experience. :) Already from what I’ve heard they’ve covered fictional atheists (one of my favorite topics), drawn from TV tropes, referenced Ken Follett, and constantly joked about technical problems. Nobody does that last one but us, right?…