Neil DeGrasse Tyson posts a surprisingly disappointing video

Let me be clear here: I loves me some Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Whether he’s smacking down end-of-the-world predictions, or calling out James Cameron for putting the wrong sky in Titanic, or just letting Jon Stewart know that the latest private enterprise spacefaring scheme is no bullshit, the guy has a lot of charm, and has done a lot for science popularization.

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Because you just love it when we share our emails

There’s a fine art to trolling, I am discovering. And when you’re an intensely devout evangelical type with a really awesome stack of scripture quotes and (what you don’t quite grasp are) fallacies that you can’t wait to unload on some pain-in-the-ass online atheists who think they’re so smart, it’s best if you first make sure you’re bringing your trolling A-game. Because you’d better know we will.

In this spirit, allow me to excerpt the more entertaining bits of a recent email exchange we’ve been having with a gentleman named Travis. This is edited for brevity, as Travis is one of those guys who thinks that we will actually read all the way through an email containing enough Bible quotes to fill War and Peace.

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Open thread on AETV #758

Dear people who have been writing in to explain that the “I worship the sun guy” was riffing on a George Carlin theme: Yes.  We know.  If we did not already know that, we would have gotten the message after the first three.  You can stop telling us about it now.

Dear people who are surprised that Jen and Martin did not recognize the prank immediately, when the entire chat room was saying it: Hosts do not read the chat room.  Live TV is live TV; you go with your instincts, and sometimes you make mistakes.  There are two people on screen, and they do not have the luxury of bouncing theories off of a hundred chatters before arriving at a conclusion.  Since it would be counterproductive to automatically assume that every caller is faking, any potential fake is treated seriously until such time as a definite judgment call can be made by the people with their fingers on the call buttons.  Sometimes they don’t make the same judgment as the chatters.  We are sorry, but just barely.

Dear people who call the show to practice their comedy routines: You are bad at it.  Seriously, go practice in a local club first, and when you do, come up with some original material rather than ripping off people who are funnier than you.  The TV audience obviously does not like you, and the hosts do not need to be wasting their energy trying to second guess the intention behind every call.  Taking your call involves a certain amount of good faith that you will represent your opinions honestly, and that the conversation will be interesting and contribute to an enjoyable episode.  It’s one thing if you are trying to sabotage the show because you want it to fail, I suppose.  But if you are an atheist who likes the show, please stop and ask yourself the question: Would I enjoy listening to someone else making the call that I am now making?  If you think it is funny to impersonate a theist, I will repeat: You are almost certainly bad at funny.  Please do not waste our time in this manner again.

Thanks!

The world experiences an infinitesimal decrease in bullshit

On the occasion of Chuck Colson’s death, I’d like to take one final opportunity to point out the online discussion I had with him before he died.

I was too young for Watergate.  In fact, Richard Nixon resigned one month to the day before I was born.  Or as I like to think, Nixon saw me coming and said to himself, “Well, the jig is up.”

That being the case, the first time I became aware of Chuck Colson was when I used to listen to Christian radio and run into his five minute “Breakpoint” series.  Colson was one of those folks who, like Jerry Falwell, liked to perform rants about how everything going wrong in the country is the fault of people who aren’t religious enough.

I’ve gone over the details about his prison ministry a few times, but it’s worth bringing up again because of its remarkable dishonesty, and a prime example of how you can fake scientific conclusions by “creaming the data.”  Colson considered his ministry the crowning achievement of his life, and so did his friends.  You can tell because it’s one of the first things that everybody brings up when they eulogize him.

“Observers suggest Colson will likely be best remembered for his prison ministry…” — Christianity Today

“And he was consumed — utterly consumed — by his calling to serve prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.” — Michael Gerson

“Except that there was also something that set the post-conversion Colson apart from the average G.O.P. partisan, and that was his zeal for prison ministry and penal reform, embodied by Prison Fellowship, the group that he founded after his own stint in behind bars.” — Ross Douthat

This is remarkable when you consider the fact that the main study that Colson has always proudly referred to, actually showed  that the ministry did not work.

What Colson claimed was that they studied the recidivism rates of prisoners who completed his ministry program and compared them with those who did not.  Recidivism means that within a certain amount of time after they were released from prison, they were reincarcerated for committing new crimes.  Colson always argued the study demonstrated that those who completed the program experienced a significantly decreased recidivism rate.

What he didn’t tell you is that the standards for “completing” the program dramatically skew the numbers in his favor.  A person is only defined as a graduate if they stick with the program for a period of time, then are released from jail, and get a job after their release.  In other words, a person who sat in on the ministry classes for the required amount of time, left the program, and then couldn’t find a job, wouldn’t be considered to have completed a program.  Therefore, if they were arrested later, that would be counted as a win for Colson, because they didn’t do what they what they were supposed to, therefore this proves that failing to “complete” the program was correlated with their arrest.

But this is a total cheat.  If you simply removed the ministry from the equation, and only compared prisoners who got a job to those who didn’t get a job, obviously the employed prisoners would be far less likely to go back to jail.  They don’t need to steal stuff to get money!  So here we have Chuck Colson deliberately excluding the group most likely to go back to jail, and then giving his ministry credit for something that happens after they leave.  The study doesn’t even attempt to demonstrate that people who take the program are more likely to get jobs.

In fact, what the study showed when you looked at the raw numbers was that among prisoners who simply entered the program — including both graduates and “dropouts”, the recidivism rates were slightly higher than the control group that wasn’t involved at all.  Or to put it simply, if the program had not existed at all, it’s possible that fewer of them would have returned to jail.

That’s the main thing I remember when I think of Chuck Colson.  When I pointed this out to him, he acted like this interpretation was a complete surprise to him — he had no proper response.  He said he would look into it, but I never heard anything on the subject again.

That is the main thing that stands out for me about Chuck Colson; that his most touted project actually appears to have either slightly hurt people or had no effect; and that he either didn’t care or refused to believe it.

One important detail is that reading his book “The Faith” gave me a great deal of insight into what evangelists mean when they talk about “The Truth” with a capital T.  They don’t mean something that can be empirically studied and verified.  They mean that when you believe something, you should really really really believe it, and not harbor any room for doubt, no matter what the facts say.  All the ink that Colson spilled on denouncing post modernism and moral relativism really made that he had drawn his conclusion and could not be talked out of it, and he was damn proud of it too.

Is atheism easier for lifelong atheists?

I was very interested to read Greta Christina’s recent post, “Will Atheism Become Easier?”  Greta asks,

And if we came to our atheism more or less on our own — if we came to the atheist community after we let go of God, not before — we had to re-invent the wheel. I certainly went through that. When I let go of my spiritual beliefs, I wasn’t familiar with a lot of atheist and humanist and skeptical and secular philosophies of life and death. Death especially was a struggle for me — as it is for many believers letting go of their beliefs — and I pretty much had to piece together my own ways of coping with a life in which death is really and truly final. And I’m not the only one. Other atheists who have left religion report similar emotional and philosophical struggles: about death, about meaning, about personal responsibility, about really big questions that frame our lives.

But I’m wondering if that will be less true for the next generation.

It’s an interesting question to me because I am that next generation, so to speak.  I never had to come to atheism on my own.  My father is an atheist, his parents were atheists, and my mother’s interest in Judaism always seemed to me to be mostly ceremonial.

I have no hesitation in answering the question of whether it’s easier to grow up without the baggage of religion, because I never thought atheism was the slightest bit difficult.  From the first time I ran into opposition from my Kindergarten classmates, I was never shy about stating my opinion, and I have rarely felt much anxiety about whether life is worth living.

Sure, being an atheist has sometimes been difficult because it makes me a minority and puts me in conflict with other people.  It has caused the occasional trouble with classmates, neighbors, and coworkers.  Fortunately major conflicts have been relatively rare for me, and the answer has usually been to meet better people or avoid topics that cause fights.  On the whole, though, I have never felt much of that massive life upending reevaluation of priorities and values that ex-theists seem to experience, or lost a lot of sleep worrying that there’s no meaning to it all.

I have always found other people’s deconversion stories to be fascinating, and by contrast, I’ve always considered the story of my own atheism to be a bit boring.  Massive internal conflict and soul searching is something that makes a good narrative — an engaging heroic journey, if you will.  But that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with skipping it.

With apologies for the overused analogy: My son has never believed in Santa Claus.  Even among atheists, this is a controversial position to take, as many atheist parents reason thusly: “I believed in Santa Claus, and it brought magic and wonder in my life until I learned the truth.  Is it fair for me to deny the same thing to my kid?”  Using a sample size of one, I think it’s absolutely fair.  Ben is still at an age where many of his peers believe in Santa, and I have asked over several years, “Do you feel like you missed out on anything, because you didn’t believe in Santa?”  He’s always immediately insisted that he’s glad he never bought into it.  He doesn’t seem to enjoy the holiday season any less (he says it’s his favorite holiday), and never seems to have been disappointed by the fact that he receives presents from his parents instead of a storybook character.

Speaking of my son, he’s another lifelong atheist, and he seems to have an even easier time of it than I did.  Like me, he doesn’t hide his opinions from fellow students.  Like me, it occasionally causes a little conflict with true believers.  Unlike me, he seems to have collected a fair number of atheist friends at each school and daycare he goes to.  I give the credit to the ever-increasing willingness of the atheist movement to speak their minds and make atheism socially acceptable.  I’m pretty confident that Ben’s generation of kids will grow up with more exposure to atheists and less fear of them than any of us did.

I certainly don’t want to say that I never faced philosophical dilemmas.  Christians have challenged me all my life to think about their views and justify my rejection of their beliefs.  I’ve devoured apologetics, both historical and modern, in the form of books and radio shows and religious TV programming and live church attendance and (of course) online and in person debates.  I’ve experienced doubt, sure — there was a period when I took a hard look at Pascal’s Wager and asked myself if there’s really a reason to fear eternal consequences.  Obviously, I concluded there wasn’t.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve certainly worried on many occasions about my own mortality.  I’ve read my old school papers and blog posts and felt some existential sadness that the “old me” will never exist again.  I have even, a time or two, pondered the fate of the last humans living.  What will it be like when the legacy of the entire human race ends, as resources run out, or the planet freezes, or the entire universe collapses?  Those are sad things to ponder.

But at no point have I seriously thought that it would have been better to have never lived at all.  I don’t just argue in the abstract that no God is needed to give my life meaning.  I try to appreciate what I’ve got, and enjoy what I do, and I can still feel optimistic that life continues to get better as people learn more.

As my son thinks of Santa, so I think of God.  I respect people who have gone through the experience of learning for the first time  that there is (probably) no God.  I appreciate the struggle that they go through in reforging their identity.  But I don’t feel like I have to trade for their experience.

Open thread on episode #757

Have at it.

[Edit by Russell:]

After the main show ended, Jeff said to me that this was one of the weirdest shows he’s ever done.  I can’t really disagree, and it’s pretty unusual that we wound up with so many calls in a row about Eastern religions.  I suppose it was kind of a refreshing change from our show being all Christianity all the time.

Let’s Treat them Like a Country

The Vatican would like to be a religious concern when it wants to inflict its “moral teachings” on non-Catholics, control Cardinals and Bishops based on church teachings, and not pay taxes. On the other hand, the Vatican would like to be a country when the Pope is named in lawsuits or when they would like to sweep their minions away to the Vatican when they face legal trouble in some country. The Vatican has done a great job of advancing their agenda with this sleight of hand. For those of us with a shred of skepticism, it smacks of a con game. “Heads I win, tails you lose.” Since being a religion has never helped the Catholic Church with its depravities, let’s force them to just be the little tin-pot country they want to be.

The first thing that has to happen is that the Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests here in the US all need to have their country loyalty questioned. One cannot serve two masters. Are they American citizens subject to US law? If so, then there should be no cover-ups, no hiding behind “church state separation” (where it suits their needs), and no misdirection of the legal system. Those who swear their loyalty to the Pope or god or some other authority should have their US citizenship revoked.  If the Vatican wants to issue them passports, that’s fine. However, let’s be clear: they are guests in our country and subject to our laws.  If they violate them, those involved should be prosecuted or deported. If they behave as organized criminals, then subject their institutions to racketeering laws and have their assets seized until they have had a proper trial. With their stonewalling, that could take centuries.  So be it. Since their criminal activities run internationally, such as money laundering and sex crimes, then let them be subject to international courts, where needed, to bring them into line.

Tax favoritism of Catholic properties should be stopped immediately. There is no reason why the US Government should be subsidizing foreign governments, especially those that have harmed American children. As a point of comparison, Saddam Hussein never harmed Americans, let alone on our own soil. An objective look at their government activities leads one to the conclusion that they are not a friendly nation. Let their activities be scrutinized by the CIA. Let’s stop publishing their press releases in our newspapers.  The USA should not be foreskin-whipped by a bunch of child molesters and their enablers.

Just this month, “US” Catholic Bishops have thrown a little tantrum over their “religious freedom.” Like frothing Muslims when someone draws a cartoon, they have learned that behaving like bratty children gets media attention. This time, they want the US government to bend US laws so that they can control the reproduction of others. Why, exactly, have we let foreign governments control our nation’s hospitals? Why are they holding so many medical ethics board seats? Supreme Court seats? What about the real religious freedom of skeptics not to have to subsidize blatantly criminal organizations?

The Catholic “pro life” stance is just self-serving ploy. Those familiar with the history of the church should be aware of the centuries of torture and genocide it has perpetuated. Remember the Crusades? The Cathars? Witch Burnings? The Inquisition? Auto-da-fé? The rape of the Americas? After its silent assent of the Holocaust (“I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.”), the Catholic Church contrived its pro-life policy out of a sense of survival. An educated Europe turned away from this horrible murderous institution. How will the parasite nation go on? We all know that God will not provide and nothing fails like prayer. Its only means of survival is to get its clutches into the next generation, the poorer and more gullible, the better. Buy low, sell high.  Their newfound “value” of human life is strangely proportionate to that life financial value as a potential tither. If the Catholic Church would like to manufacture humans, then let them fund their project themselves. If they will not fund the children they want to create, then they are the abortion murderers, are they not?

It’s time to treat the Vatican as a country—one with its own self-interests almost universally at odds with ours. Let’s make them stop using Americans and America for their ends.  Let’s bring the crime ring to justice.