Thanks for not using “No True Scotsman”

I found this letter to the editor in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman interesting. It was in reference to a statement in an earlier article regarding the recent Fort Hood shootings:

Religious radical?
Re: Nov. 12 article “Suspect alarmed doctors.”

The story noted that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s doctors and colleagues “viewed him at times as belligerent, defensive and argumentative in his frequent discussions of his … faith.”

That pretty much describes every member of the religious right that I’ve ever encountered.

Rev. Bill Young

How often have I, and others, said that liberal Christians need to be more vocal in their condemnation of their more extreme brethren–instead of falling back on the “No True Scotsman” fallacy? In fact, it’s their silence and solidarity as much as their support of irrationality that lends credibility to the extremists in their ranks. So, this statement undermines at least one of the pillars supporting fundamentalism in Western Christendom. I hope other Christians will follow suit.

When I first read the content, I thought, “No Christian will hear anything an anti-religious person submits in this vein.” Then I saw the signature and was happy. It’s like reading about a lawsuit to bring down a religious statue on public property and finding the plaintiff is theist. It’s sort of a relief to know we aren’t going to be accused of bias and targeted for criticism or ugly insults—at least not this time. That’s not a bad feeling now and again.

Thanks Bill.

The Bible Code

I think it was Don who once described an apologetic method of debate as something along the lines of coming into a room, dropping a huge pile of feces on the floor, and then leaving the skeptics to sort out the mess.

We were recently hit by such an apologist on our AE TV list who wrote to give us “60 pages” of evidence for god’s existence. Not that I’m not interested in giving evidence a fair review—but please have mercy and some sense. We get hit with loads of requests from theists and atheists to “please look at this and tell me what you think about it.” Yes, we have a small team of people—but we are all volunteers with real lives outside of AE. And while most people understand and respect that, some seem to think that we’re obligated to read (actually in most cases reread) anything they want to dump on us for their god. Fair enough that we should consider claims before dismissing them, but how about doing what Matt sometimes asks: Give me your very best argument or evidence.

This way we can start with what you think is most compelling and examine that first. Then, if I don’t find it compelling, there is no reason for me to have to wade through the other 59 pages of crap that you admit isn’t quite as compelling. Fair enough? At any rate you’d have to admit it would be a big time-saver that benefits both the apologist and the counter-apologist.

Well, this apologist wrote to some others on the list. Some things I read, some I didn’t. But with me, she was very interested in the Bible Code. It had been a few years since I had encountered anyone serious about the Bible Code. In fact, it’s so infrequently used by apologists who contact us (and for good reason), that I thought other counter apologists may or may not have ever had any reason to investigate this “code” for themselves. I had read a bit back when I was a theist, but I investigated it just enough to find it utterly uncompelling, and that was that. Since I already believed in god then, it really didn’t matter.

So, I was a bit rusty in my responses to the latest claims, and had to do some refresher reading, which I did. And to be fair, I learned some things I didn’t recall from my prior reading, which is always nice. To be honest, though, what I learned made me even less inclined to accept this code as anything but hogwash.

Torah Code?
My first complaint about the code is the actually name: Bible Code.

At least in the West, when we see the word “Bible,” we think of books that contain basically what is contained in a standard King James anthology or, perhaps, a Catholic version. In fact, while I was dialoguing, I mentioned the New Testament more than once. She never corrected me to let me know that, in fact, the “Bible” Code has nothing to do with the Christian content of the “Bible”—it only applies to restricted portions of the Hebrew holy texts—the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy). This means that if there is any reason to think that a book containing codes is the handiwork of any god, nothing in the Christian “scriptures” would be demonstrated as text from god, due to this code. In fact, another name for the Bible Code is “Torah Code”—which I hold to be more honest. When a Christian calls it “Bible Code,” that’s misleading, unless they also clearly note that none of what has been considered compelling in any of the research—the codes in the main debate over what is generally considered the context of the “Bible Code” issue—applies to what they would usually mean when they use the word “Bible.”

Where It All Began and the Koran Code
Although the idea of finding Bible codes goes back a ways, the real hot button came when, Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg (WRR) published a paper titled: “Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis” in the journal Statistical Science. The main criticism from me is that we have no original manuscripts from which to work. So, we begin any such examination for divine codes with a copy, and with little means of demonstrating that copy’s firm adherence to any original version(s).

Ironically, Muslims have noticed this same problem. There is also, not surprisingly, a Koran Code, and one of the reasons given for the superiority of the Koran Code by Muslim proponents is that the Koran text is closer to “original” than any Bible text could ever hope to be. While the Koran does have a history that leaves room for translation “adjustments,” the claim that it is closer to “original” is not without a bit of merit. I should note that I do not claim the Koran Code is ELS-type code. It’s somewhat variant. But as long as the Torah guys can make up their code rules, why not the Muslims? At any rate, it seems anyone can have some sort of superhuman, magical code in their holy book from god. But here is a link to a Muslim making his case for why the Koran Code beats the pants off any Bible Code:

http://www.submission.org/quran/biblecode.html

And here is a load of info if you’re interested in what impresses some Muslims about the Koran Code:

http://www.submission.org/miracle/

And here is an article in the Egypt Daily News, talking about the miracle of the Koran Code, in which Meer Hamza, who has a Ph.D. in software engineering from University of Paisley in Scotland, says it “will be one of the main reasons to make non-Muslims turn to Islam.” In fact, the team who “cracked” the code claimed, “no person on earth, not even a computer software is capable of writing even one word abiding with the Quranic mathematical code”:

http://www.dailystaregypt.com/printerfriendly.aspx?ArticleID=7314

I include this, not because I find it any more compelling that the Bible Code, but because I was told, by the apologist with whom I was dialoging, that they’d never heard of any such “Koran Code.” Not only is it there, but it’s hailed as an undeniable “miracle” by the Muslims who subscribe to it. And if you’ve ever argued with a Muslim, you know they have what can only be called “a thing,” for number-play in the Koran.

Forgive me for one sideline. I know I go long. But I’ve heard people claim the Koran doesn’t contain prophecy. (It’s funny how many Christians make claims about the Koran, that are hotly disputed by Muslims I encounter.) As I was looking up the code material last night, I found a Koran prophecy for the Apollo Moon mission:

http://www.submission.org/miracle/moon.html

What makes me laugh is how much like Christian prophecy this Koran prophecy works. It predicts so much—after it has already happened. It’s very rare to find someone hollering for extra security at some political event because Isaiah or Moby Dick or the Koran or Nostradamus predicted an assassination attempt. How many disasters have been averted by someone recognizing an embedded prophecy before such a prophecy took place? And as I toss this out as rhetorical, watch someone find me an example! It seems there’s always someone.

Bible Codes, the Later Years
Believe it or not, there is a guy who came after WRR, Michael Drosnin, who says he found a prophecy in the Torah Code before it happened—the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Since Rabin was successfully assassinated, I have to note that this prophecy must not have been very clear, since it was of zero use in averting a tragedy it supposedly foretold. Drosnin claims he tried to report the threat. If so, that would be to his credit. It’s too bad there wasn’t sufficiently specific information in the prophecy to make a warning more useful. Armed beforehand with a name of the assassin, a specific date and a few more details, and someone in authority could have perhaps helped Rabin avoid being killed. How was this “prophecy” even helpful? And how many future events will be “found” in the text-
-like the name of Rabin’s assassin, said to have been found after he was already identified? That’s painting a target around my arrow after I’ve randomly hit some tree.

But Drosnin was so impressed with himself that he went back looking for other, unhelpful and useless, historic assassination prophecies, and—surprise, surprise—found them. Of course, they were all “encoded” in different ways—it appears there is no set method in this code of expressing that someone will be assassinated. You sort of have to know how to read it in various disguises. But, it’s there, says Drosnin—if you know how to look. This sort of sloppy work is a trademark of Drosnin, though. It is examined in sufficient detail in Marvin V. Zelkowitz’s research paper, “The Bible Codes,” found at the University of Maryland website:

http://www.cs.umd.edu/~mvz/pub/biblecode.pdf

It’s slightly painful to read Zelkowitz’s responses, because it’s hard to accept anyone could be as careless as Drosnin, and still be hailed as a hero by so many gullible followers. Drosnin, to be fair, doesn’t claim to be either a scientist or a researcher. He’s just a writer—selling books about the Torah Code. Nothing wrong with being a writer, unless your writing about something that rests upon research data, and you don’t understand good research methods.

The first thing to understand about research with something like the Torah Code is how data can be bias. Here’s a simple example of something you have to understand about numbers and how they impact interpretations of data:

Coin Experiment
I am going to do a study. In my study I have a subject who will flip a silver dollar. I won’t tell him why (I want to keep it “blind,” so my subject won’t skew my results). I also want the coin to land on the floor—I don’t want the subject to touch it after he’s tossed it—in order to make my results as random as I can. After all, I want to be fair. My hypothesis, known only to me, is that I believe the coin toss experiment will reveal that I get “heads” as a result far more often than “tails.” My subject tosses the coin into the air—and it lands, exactly as I predicted! Heads up! I thank my subject and write my paper demonstrating that “not only did I get heads more often than tails, but I actually achieved a much greater result than anticipated: I achieved heads 100% of the time!”

I did nothing to manipulate the data. I blinded the study and removed myself as a potential factor that could bias the data. And I inserted something in my method to make the result random. And I was very honest about the data I gleaned from my research.

I’m guessing you can see the problem with my conclusion that coins, when tossed, will most often (maybe even 100% of the time) land on heads.

Sample Size
Sample size impacts results. How many coin flips did I test? One. And that sample size invalidates my findings. Obviously I need more coin tosses. So, next time I do my research, I do two tosses. And I get heads both times. Have I fixed the problem? No, because we all know that it’s possible to get what is called a “run” with things like this. Even though over an extended period of tossing the coin, I should get heads something close to 50% of the time, I could, theoretically, get heads for 100 tosses in a row. It would be funny, but not impossible.

What was the sample size in the original Torah Code experiment? How many books other than the Torah did they test? None. They ran multiple codes, but only on the Torah. They didn’t run those codes on other similar samples. And, as we’ll discuss, that’s more of a problem than just “sample size.” But to be fair, there is some debate from what I read about whether the results held up as “statistically significant,” after other researchers ran the codes on other, similar books as samples. We’ll address that later.

Repeatability, Part I
Beyond increasing sample size, repeatability is also good thing. Instead of doing one experiment where I toss the coin 100 times and calculate the rates, I now decide we’ll do ten 100-toss experiments. As I increase my sample size to something more reasonable—100 tosses per experiment, rather than two—I will more and more start getting results closer to 50% heads. But since I recognize it’s still realistically possible to get an anomaly like a 100-head-result run in one experiment, it’s a good idea to do the experiment more than once. With the Torah Code, if there is demonstrated statistical significance, we still have to understand, this could be our 100-head run. So, I see high results found in one book, as potentially not even relevant. If I run the test on 100 books, I expect to see some hit high, some low, and some closer to center. If we can’t explain how one book generated higher rates—the fact that it did so could be nothing more than our 100-head run. The simple fact is: Nobody knows.

The way to demonstrate that the high hit book is significant, and not just a possible anomaly, would begin by offering a plausible explanation for how it hits so much higher than the other books, something for which we could test. “God” could not be offered as a cause in a universe where no gods have yet been demonstrated to exist, since things that do not exist cannot be the cause of other things. To posit god as an explanation, would first require a study to demonstrate there are gods and that those gods would be inclined to produce book codes. A daunting task. But short of any actual plausible explanation available to us, we would be left only with a high hitter and no means demonstrate how it hits so high.

But I will share with you a statement from Robert Aumann. Aumann is a Game Theorist. He was impressed by the codes at the time he said, “for many years I thought that an ironclad case had been made for the codes; I did not see how ‘cheating’ could have been possible.” However, when the research was critiqued by other researchers, Aumann had to admit that “Though this work [in reference to published criticisms of the code methods] did not convince me that the data had been manipulated, it did convince me that it could have been; that manipulation was technically possible.”

What Is a Code?
Aumann’s statement leads us into our next issue, which requires an understanding of how the codes are generated. A method known as ELS is used—but you could apply loads of different patterns. Any pattern could be a “code.” But in ELS, the researcher gets to pick a starting point in the manuscript—which may or may not be the first letter. Then he gets to choose another number (so far the researcher has manipulated two variants) that he then “skips” until the next letter in the manuscript. So, let’s say every tenth letter is selected after your chosen start number. The fact you can configure it however you like is a big part of the problem. There is no “prescribed” matrix that we know will work to find secret messages from god in books, so it’s up to the researcher to start picking numbers. With no known “correct” matrix for finding secret messages from god in texts, we all have free reign over how we build out favorite matrices.

So, we end up with a string of random letters, which we then go over with a fine-toothed comb looking for words that we get to label as “meaningful” (to us) or not. Obviously we can expect to find loads of “words” or “strands” of words—but only the ones we decide “count” will be selected. So we get to keep and toss whatever we think fits.

As you might imagine, this is a big no-no. In relation to my coin toss experiment, let’s say that 25 times out of 100, the coin bounces off a wall before it lands on the floor. Would it be a problem if I said, “anytime the coin bounces off the wall and lands on tails, I am going to say it doesn’t count toward the final 100; but
anytime it bounces off a wall and lands on heads, we’ll count that”? The answer is “yes, it would be a problem.” It would skew my results. Each time I hit the wall and don’t get my desired heads, I get to do it over again, which increases the chance I’ll get heads more often over tails. In these codes, whatever words the researchers find that don’t mean anything to them, they don’t have to report as a “miss.” But whatever they find that they have predetermined will be “meaningful” to them—literally whatever they call meaningful—they get to report as “hits.” So you ignore the garbage, and just report the positive findings.

If meaningful phrases are evidence of the existence of a code, then why isn’t “noise”—random letters with no discernable meaning found in the code (to a large degree)— counted as evidence against the existence of a code in the text? In other words, if a bit of “not crap” = “coded,” then why doesn’t “crap” found all over in these codes demonstrate “not coded”? Why does this magical code include any crap at all? What’s the crap for? Why doesn’t it tell a cohesive story using all the code letters with no noise? I suggest something that starts with “Congratulations, you’ve cracked my secret god code! I have so much to reveal to you…” and on from there.

In the original study, though, the words that the researchers decided would be counted were words connected with biographical data about famous rabbis. The findings were interesting and the researchers claimed success. In subsequent criticisms, it was demonstrated that by manipulating the matrix settings, you can increase or decrease the level of significance. It would be along the lines of discovering that if you start your coin flip with the coin on tails, you are more likely to get heads as a result. As Aumann says, you may not have intended to start more of your flips on tails, but if you did, however unintentionally, it could still potentially skew your results. Even without meaning to, the moment you select which letters and numbers to use, you have already influenced the results. And this is only one way to subjectively, and problematically, “tune” your results. More later.

Repeatability, Part II and Statistical Significance
For now, let’s go back to my Coin Toss experiment and the idea of “repeatability.” Most likely I will get some variance if I increase my sample size to 100 tosses within my single experiment. For example, I may get heads 30% and tails 70% in one experiment. So, it’s good to “repeat” the experiment. The second time, I get heads 48% and tails 52%. So, I repeat and repeat, and eventually I get 52% heads after 10 experiments of 100 tosses each, plus or minus a few points for error rate—which we would all recognize as a more realistic expectation for a Coin Toss result.

This “plus or minus” consideration is what determines something called “statistical significance.” In other words, if we get 52%, that’s still in line with results we would expect from random chance for a two-sided coin flip. The two percent is not considered “significant” to us. It is not be impressively outside the range of our expectations. If we had a good sample size, and we did the experiment repeatedly a good number of times, and somehow we kept getting heads “significantly” less than tails, like only 2% of the time, we’d consider something was not in line with “chance.” Either our experiment was somehow biased, or there’s something else influencing the flips that we must identify. But what is “significant”? Is there a way to determine whether the variance we’re seeing is “chance” or something else at 53%? 55%? 60%? In fact, clever researchers have worked out methods of figuring this out. It’s not a guess. You don’t get to say, “Well I just can’t believe we could get these results by chance—so it must be significant!” Your level (or my level, or their level) of credulity is not how statistical significance is measured:

http://www.wikihow.com/Assess-Statistical-Significance

What you find personally significant or impressive, as far as assessing results, is meaningless, because human beings are biased. What can be demonstrated as significant, in research, is something else entirely.

Using Controls
Sometimes you can figure out if something is beyond the norm with what is called a “control.” “Controls” are handy. A control would be helpful, for example, in a drug trial. Let’s say I make a drug to cure disease X. X kills 5,000 people each year in the U.S. within one year of infection. Nobody who dies from X lives past the first year. And anyone who survives it simply exhibits natural immunity and survives with no further detectible infection. But there is no known effective medical treatment currently for curing X once you contract it.

I take 100 subjects infected with X and give them my drug protocol within the first few days of diagnosed infection. At the end of one year, 50 of my subjects are still alive and show no signs of infection. I announced that of 100 people infected with X, I successfully cured 50 with my treatment.

Should we celebrate that we’ve made a dent in medical treatment of X? If you think “yes,” slap yourself—very hard.

Before we pop the champagne, there’s something we forgot to consider: Each year in the U.S. 10,000 people become infected with X. And if I would have used a “control” group—a group of people who weren’t treated with my drug—I would have discovered 50 out of 100 subjects alive in that group as well at the end of the year—all with no signs of infection. And the study would have failed to demonstrate my drug helped anyone in that case. It’s simply a fact that half the people who become infected with X are able to fight it off successfully through their own natural immunity. The other half die within a year. Unless we get better results in future research, my drug appears to be wholly ineffective.

A “control” in the case of the Torah Code would be using other books—the more the better—to run patterns to see what I get. And in fact, the lack of controls was not ignored by critics. In 1999, in a paper published in Statistical Science (Brendan McKay, Dror Bar-Natan, Gil Kalai, Maya Bar-Hillel [MBKB]) there were a list of criticisms against work done by Code proponents (WRR), that included a control test claim. The claim was that a Hebrew copy of War and Peace had been tested and achieved high levels of statistical significance. I won’t lie to you. In this debate—as in all religious debate—there are claims and counter claims and counter-counter-claims. For every person I find claiming “statistically significant” data, I find someone else claiming they have demonstrated that same level somewhere else, or have demonstrated that the first level was achieved using faulty methods. I will let the “experts” hash that one out. All I can say is that the original data did not include controls, which other researchers had to add later. And the initial lack of control in the research should be counted as a demonstration of sloppy method.

How Do We Interpret the Data?
I said at the outset that I had learned this is about the “Torah” Code, and not the “Bible” Code. I was dismissive when the apologist on the list used an Old Testament verse in her examples, because there is something interesting about Old Testament manuscripts that I was already aware of, that, in my mind, makes them extremely suspect—if not entirely useless—in a setting like the code studies. The writing contains no vowels.

Why is this important? Consider this: Let’s say we run our code on a regular book and we get a strand that includes these letters: T H E R A P I S T. The codes use no punctuation and you get to decide not only if this set of letters is “meaningful” in your g
reater context, but how to interpret it. Is it “the rapist” near a set of letters that look like “bundy”? Or is it “therapist” next to a set of letters that look like “freud”? Or if it is in close proximity to “bundy,” do you only consider it as “therapist” (and fail to see the “rapist” possibility) and find no link to “bundy” (who was a rapist, but not a therapist) nearby—so you toss it out as a “miss”—instead of a “hit” or even an identified error in your code? If the code says “bundy” was a “therapist”—shouldn’t that be reported as an error in the code? Does the code say erroneously that “bundy” was a “therapist”—but you manipulated it and made “bundy” a “rapist” and wrongly attributed a “hit”? What if in 10 years, a famous therapist arises named “Bundy”? Which “bundy” does the code mean? Maybe neither; maybe the “bundy” reference is just noise? How do we tell? Even with benefit of vowels, it’s a subjective mess.

Speaking of undesired outcomes of the code—meaningful misses—it’s hard to overlook the humorous work of Dr. James D. Price, professor of Hebrew and OT at Temple Baptist Seminary, Chattanooga, TN, who found repetitive “self-contradicting” codes, and “negative codes” with messages like “there is no god” and “Satan is Jehovah”:

http://www.nmsr.org/neg-code.htm

But back to the problem of “no vowels.” Here’s what happens when we don’t have to deal with vowels: Using English as an example, let’s say we find an “R” in the code. Just an “R” in a strand of letters. Since I get to add the vowels at will, here is a sample of what I can do with just an “R” and my choice of vowels:

AIR
ARE
EAR
IRE
OAR
OR
ORE

And if I add an “S” after the “R” (R and S are, after all, common letters in English):

AIRS
EARS
OARS
ORES
OR IS
OR AS
ARISE
RISE
ROSE
RAISE

And so on.

I think you get my point. It’s incredibly subjective and easy to manipulate. In fact, it isn’t just the case that I can manipulate this data. Since there are no vowels, and I am trying to make words from this mess, I must manipulate this data. This is bad, bad, bad. I’m not just interpreting the results now—I’m actually creating the results I want. And this is called “bias,” and it’s every research paper’s worst nightmare. If I can demonstrate reasonable room for bias in your methods, you have seriously compromised your right to label your results “valid.”

Believers as Critics
As I wind this down, something interesting I also found was that some of the most damning critics of the Torah Code are religious people or, at least, people who are sympathetic toward it. Remember Zelkowitz, I mentioned earlier? He actually thinks there is something to the work done by WRR. He says in his Bible Code criticism, in fact, that WRR’s results had yet to be “satisfactorily explained.” But he still went on to shred Drosnin’s claims from just about every angle imaginable. Again, I make no claims about WRR—you can read the debate on your own if you find any of this potentially compelling. Zelkowitz published the same year as MBKB’s criticism of WRR—so I have no idea if he had a chance to read their criticisms by the time he published or not.

Also, remember Dr. Price, at the Baptist University? Here’s a comment posted by him at an online list:

http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-hebrew/1999-June/003362.html

“In any segment of Scripture literally thousands of such codes can be found on thousands of words. One may pick and choose among them to imagine any message he desires. The same is true for secular Hebrew literature. Hundreds of false and self contradictory statements have been found. The alleged ‘statistical’ proof has been seriously challenged by expert mathematicians. In my opinion, the topic is not worthy of serious thought. It is a waste of one’s time.”

Some other religious folk who take the codes to task include the Web site “bibleonly.org,” with their posting of “Does the Bible Code Bear the Signature of God?” by Ed Christian Ph.D., Department of English, Kutztown University, Kutztown, PA. Christian’s answer is pretty clearly “no.”

And at the scp-inc.org site (Spiritual Counterfeits Project), actually a religious site dedicated to the truth of god’s word, they have a multipart shredding of the codes called “Bible Codes, or Matrix of Deception?” Again, after reading a bit of it, I’d say the conclusion I’m supposed to come to is “matrix of deception.” Of course, religious people have their own bones to pick with why these types of Bible parlor tricks are blasphemous. I’ll leave them to sort that one out as well.

Meanwhile one really uplifting tale I found on the Internet was the story of a current theist, Lori Eldridge. Lori is dedicated to the lord and runs a Bible study site. Lori used to be extremely dedicated to the defense and support of the truth of the Torah (Bible) Codes. At her site today, however, she has only this to say about her past as a defender:

http://www.loriswebs.com/lorispoetry/articles.html

“I used to be the owner of the Tcode mailing list where some of the top notch Torah Code experts in the world discussed the Bible Codes. The majority of us finally came to the conclusion that the codes cannot be of God because they were not statistically relevant and you can even fine ‘bible codes’ in the daily newspaper. And, most important, even Jesus’ name (in Hebrew) was not found in any book of the Bible.”

Well, if it doesn’t say “Jesus,” then it can’t be from god, right? In jest, I have to ask, is it possible it doesn’t say Jesus as a message from god? I guess what I find hopeful about Lori’s statement is that she was finally able to see past a falsehood that would have supported her beliefs about god. She had every biased reason, any other believer would have, to hang on tightly no matter how ridiculous the claim or how sorry the “evidence,” but ultimately somebody, somehow got Lori to understand how research works and how the Torah Code fails. While she is still a believer, she changed her mind about at least one piece of evidence when honestly confronted by other compelling evidence to the contrary. And I respect that and applaud her for it. That’s a heck of a fine character trait in any human being—theist or not.

What’s So Good About Being Wrong?

If you’re like me, you couldn’t wait to see that six-mile plume of debris kicked up on the pole of the moon recently when the NASA rovers dove into the surface of our most famous natural satellite.

And, if you’re like me, you were totally disappointed by what you saw on NASA channel, or, I’m told, through your telescopes at home—even with a clear sky.

A brilliant explosion of dust and ice was predicted. It didn’t happen.

Again, if you’re like me, you immediately thought something along the lines of “What happened?! What went wrong?!”

NASA, however, announced it was a great success. Data began streaming immediately. And they expect to be analyzing it for weeks to come. Maybe it wasn’t a glorious sight, but certainly we’ll learn something from the voyage. In fact, the failure of our prediction has already taught us something: It taught us that some prediction and some part of the model that NASA attempted and anticipated was wrong. Observably wrong.

When we make a prediction about reality, and our prediction clearly fails, we would do well to go back and rethink our assumptions. I’m sure NASA will be doing just that. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if one of the most burning questions they’re asking is why they didn’t get that plume they expected (and even computer generated). The truth is, when life goes on as predicted, we learn very little. When life throws us for a loop—if we’re so inclined, we have an opportunity to learn a bit more about ourselves, our assumptions, and, most importantly, about the reality around us.

Can you imagine a NASA engineer watching the plume fail to rise, who insists his assumptions cannot be flawed? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt that even in the sciences, there can be such fools. But generally speaking, most average people, and most scientists as well, understand that when assumptions fail, we have an opportunity to learn something. And we ignore such opportunities, generally, at our peril.

And yet, I can recall time after time in my former fundamentalist life, when I insisted it was simply a mystery when my beliefs, or what I read in the Bible, failed to correspond to reality. Why does the Bible say this if it doesn’t make sense? Well, it does make sense, I was taught to insist—it’s just that I can’t understand it with my human mind. And if you think you can—well, you’re just arrogant.

I know that wine doesn’t turn to water. I knew it then. I know a man can’t survive for days in the belly of a fish. I knew it then. I had never seen such a thing. I had never heard of any such things having ever been verified. And yet, the fact that these stories failed to correspond to reality hindered me not at all from accepting they were true and that reality was not to be trusted in these cases. What I observed in reality didn’t matter. This was “different.” This was “god”—residing in a compartment in my brain that reality could never taint.

Recently I heard of something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth—which is just a fancy way to say that if I believe I can run through a concrete wall, and I try, and I bust my head and fall on my ass instead, I would do well to question my assumptions, rather than the wall.

All of us use this method of getting by in life all the time. When you sit in a chair, you believe it will hold you. If it does, your belief has been verified. If it doesn’t, your belief has been demonstrated to have been wrong. When you fall to the floor, it is nothing more than folly to insist the chair really did hold you, exactly as you said it would. The children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a cautionary tale about Correspondence Theory, in fact, that any child can comprehend: A person who can be separated from reality and reason, is an easy mark.

Undermining our reliance on how reality corresponds to our mental models divorces us from the most basic means we have of testing our beliefs against reality as a means to differentiate true beliefs from false beliefs. It is just one way religion can damage a person’s reasoning ability. Getting an adherent to doubt a method of validation he must use day-in and day-out as the basis for how he learns and survives with any modicum of success in this life, is a monumental accomplishment. Shameful—but monumental. The fact that religion accomplishes this on such a grand scale should cause everyone to take notice.

If you’ve never suffered indoctrination, it probably seems ridiculous to you. How could I ever, for example, get you to believe reality is not what is clearly demonstrated before you? How could I convince you, through unverified claims alone, that I knew a guy who flat-lined for three days, and has recently been brought back to life? How could I convince you that moral knowledge is gained by eating magical fruit? How could I convince you that angels can make donkeys speak? That the planet is 10,000 years old? How could I convince you mass infanticide can be a good thing sometimes?

I understand how easy it is to think Christians are merely stupid. When judged from the perspective of a person who has never suffered the indignity of having his own reasoning skills utterly gutted and discredited as a child, it will probably only ever be understood as “stupid.” Honestly, I really can’t defend otherwise. I was stupid. But today, at least, I know why.

Some of you will never understand the sick depths of indoctrination and what it can do to the mind of a child. I am sincerely happy for those of you who never knew, and will never know, what it’s like to have come to recognize that a group of people, including those you loved and trusted most, convinced you for many years to doubt your own ability to think and reason, and to doubt the most basic, objective reality that surrounds you.

Reintegrating into reality can be a chore, a process that can take, literally, years. I cringe each time I see a letter on our list from someone going through this who writes to ask “When will I stop being afraid? Does it ever go away?” or “When will I stop feeling like I’m so stupid? Will I ever learn to trust myself?”

And where am I going with this? I guess on the one hand, if you’re not familiar with anything like this, try to empathize, even if you can’t actually sympathize. Consider mercy sometimes when you feel like being sarcastic or cruel. These are abused people. The fact some of them don’t yet realize it doesn’t alter that fact.

And if you know exactly what I’m describing, know that you’re not alone. Know that you will get better. Know that what was done to you was abusive and wrong—even if it was done by misguided people who thought they were doing the right thing. Forgive them for your own peace of mind. And work on getting past this and finding some way to reintegrate with your humanity and to celebrate the fact that imperfection isn’t something for which you need to continually denigrate yourself.

Remember that being wrong, and recognizing we’re wrong, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s OK to be wrong. It’s an opportunity. It’s how we learn and grow as human beings.

10/14/09: Addendum
Today we received a letter on the AE TV list. It was from a Christian, imploring us to reconsider our atheism. I wanted to share this quote as a demonstration of the harm caused by childhood indoctrination. It was just such a sterling example of my point:

“So, you are going to live in fear and doubt until you deal with the question of whether Christianity is true or not.”

When I was an adolescent, I prayed long and hard for something to help me to believe. The idea that a vengeful god existed and that he required a belief I might fail to provide was terrifying. At the time, I don’t think I would have recognized I was in terror, because I was so used to that level of fear
. Today I know that there is nothing to be gained by “fearing” ignorance. And the cure for ignorance isn’t prayer–it’s investigation. While I’m not immune from fear in my life, I can honestly say I no longer fear in the sense that I “doubt” my choices about god and religion. I don’t lose any sleep over the thought “what if god exists and I don’t believe?” I recall the day I realized that if I researched as much as I could, and honestly concluded there was no god there, god would be an absolute ass to torment me for an honest, heartfelt effort, which his what I gave. And if god is such an ass, I don’t want to worship and obey him anyway–even if it means eternity in Hell, in the same way I wouldn’t want to follow orders from Hitler, even if it meant firing squad.

Can You Spot the Strawman in this Picture?

Who didn’t love Highlights as a kid? It was probably the only positive thing about visiting the dentist that I can recall. Everybody’s favorite thing was the Hidden Pictures—but only if the images weren’t already circled.

Well, today, I’m giving you an adult atheist version of Highlights Hidden Pictures. In this morning’s Austin American-Statesman was a ridiculous opinion piece by Texas Attorney General hopeful Ted Cruz about the cross monument on federal property that has been in the news recently.

Today’s assignment: Be the person who spots the most fallacies, errors, omissions or deceptions.

The winner gets full braggin’ rights.

The only hint I offer is that whenever a person misrepresents an opponent’s stance, the point is to try and wobble them off-base a bit by getting them upset or angry. I find humor, and mocking such a person, has the effect of not giving them what they want, in addition to showing you’re above their childish and obvious attempts at manipulation. Should anyone choose to reply to the Statesman directly, I encourage them to bear that in mind.

Basava Premanand (1930-2009)

On October 4 of this year Basava Premanand died.

You may never have heard of Premanand, but in addition to physically reminding me a bit of James Randi, Premanand also had his own paranormal challenge and dedicated his life to debunking “godmen” of India. Just days before he died, according to a special release of the e-zine Bangalore Skeptic, he drafted and signed a statement attesting he was of sound mind and still as skeptical as ever. He didn’t want any tales of death-bed confessions to haunt his reputation, after his death.

If you haven’t ever heard of Premanand, I urge you to look him up and read about him and the sorts of problems Indian skeptics are addressing.

V Goes to Jesus Camp

From behind a Guy Fawkes mask, reminiscent of V, he explains in his first video what we’re about to see as we click on one, and then another, “Camp Trip” video links.

“I’ve made about 300 videos on my [Youtube] channel, and most of them featured me, without any disguise. I started making the videos in September 2008, but after my most recent call to The Atheist Experience, my Youtube channel was suspended fraudulently. The Youtube atheist community is having a very hard time dealing with fundamentalist Christians and apologists, who falsely flag our videos as ‘inappropriate’ or file false copyright claims (which is, in fact, a crime). Once my channel was restored, I decided to play it safe and hide my identity, just to make sure that a cursory examination of my channel and videos would not draw suspicion from my family members or their church. Aside from that, the irony of a Guy Fawkes mask is not lost on me; though he was a Catholic conspirator trying to destroy a Protestant government, my use of the mask mirrors the motive of the V character. I am a strong supporter of free speech, and took up the mantle whilst Christians continue to infringe upon the rights of others on Youtube, and in the rest of the world.”

“Shwanerd,” as he bills himself on Youtube, originally surfaced during a phone call to The Atheist Experience. He gave the call screeners the name “James,” and described himself as a 16-year-old, from a Pentecostal home, living in Canada. Then, like V, live on the air, he proceeded to publicly broadcast his plans: to post a series of home-spun “Jesus Camp” styled videos chronicling his own experiences at a religious retreat over summer 2009.

He explained he had gone to camp as far back as he could remember, and said he had begun seriously investigating his faith only a few years prior to the call, with the intention of defending it against skeptics. Ironically, his research, intended to defend his faith, eventually led him to the conclusion that his faith was indefensible. He soon realized he had deconverted himself.

Asked to describe what he went through during that time, James said:

“My level of religious fundamentalism peaked around the age of 12, when I was watching Kent Hovind seminars and Ray Comfort’s Way of the Master series in church. My critical thinking skills must have been sorely lacking at the time, and much like Matt Dillahunty’s quest to ‘save souls,’ my efforts to reinforce my beliefs only made them less believable. I began to follow the Youtube atheism movement in late 2007, and by 15, I couldn’t reconcile my Christianity with real facts—real evidence.

“I was always interested in science, and when I truly grasped the concept of evolution, I realized how tenuous and foolish my religion was. I couldn’t compartmentalize my beliefs, as so many people do in the face of contradictory evidence. Rather, my whole worldview was forced to change dramatically. In the span of only about a year, I went from young-earth creationism to old-earth deism, ‘wishy-washy’ agnosticism, and finally the kind of ‘strong-atheism’ Matt often describes on the show (at least regarding all gods ever worshipped in human history).

“Even divorced from that scientific refutation of the Bible’s teachings, I was also able to at last grasp the absolute moral repugnance of the God character in the Abrahamic religions. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe or worship such an evil concept.”

The videos are nearly all set to the same melodic, ominous tune. “The music you hear most often on my recent videos is the instrumental version of the song ‘Cells’ by a now-defunct band called ‘The Servant.’ It is more commonly recognized as the theme song for Sin City. I think the music matched well with the current tone of my videos, as well as having a recognizable (and awesome!) guitar riff.”

Most of the clips include brief introductions by James, followed by simple video of the camp activities—consisting mainly of sermons by youth ministers. These preaching sessions are supplemented by religious messages in giant letters, presented on a projection screen on the stage behind the speaker. In the first video, Shwanerd zooms in to show the text:

“Because He lives, I can face tomorrow…Life is worth living, just because he lives.”

Presented to these children as a statement of affirmation, the group appears oblivious to what James is highlighting with his zoom, an ominous indoctrination “message behind the message” that without this religion, the adherent might as well be dead.

In other segments, we’re introduced to more “affirmations” that feature fear and control themes, to which the young audience also seems oblivious. The minister preaches on enthusiastically:

“Just be willing to go where god wants us to go.”

“You can’t have a casual relationship with Jesus…you ask him to come into your life and be your Lord…to be the one who is calling the shots. To be the one who is completely in control of what’s going on in your life.”

To some outside the faith community, these words may be either sad or frightening: a crowd of young people being instructed by a respected authority figure to relinquish responsibility of their choices and actions—to not dare to guide their own destinies. The question these segments present is, “If these young people do not guide their own lives, and there is no god, then who, exactly, inherits control over these myriad young minds?” It is the youth minister who acts as the mouth of god, telling receptive young minds what god demands of them.

Another indoctrination technique demonstrated in the videos includes taking advantage of something called compartmentalization, a mental technique of separating conflicting opinions and never considering them together—as a means to maintain two incompatible concepts within a single mind. In this way, an otherwise reasonable person can become unreasonable in isolated areas of his or her life. An example of this would include a competent professional accountant whose personal finances are in shambles due to poor money management application at home. The accountant has demonstrated money management competency, but fails to consider or apply this competency in a specific situation. Observers may be mystified at how someone so professionally competent with money, can exercise such incompetence in personal financial matters. But contradictions like this aren’t uncommon—demonstrated in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.

The minister shouts, “Put Jesus in a category all his own!” He explains Jesus is unique and unlike anything else these children will ever know. He encourages them to put this belief on a pedestal—to not place this belief on par with other beliefs. Other beliefs can be questioned or rejected, but this single, unique belief is special and cannot be viewed like, or compared with, other beliefs. It needs to be set in a specialized and separate compartment, away from other thoughts and ideas. The children can question or put aside belief in Allah. They can question or put aside belief in nationalism. They can question or put aside belief in family loyalty. But they cannot question or put aside belief in Jesus.

The next message James tapes is the minister telling the children that believing in things without justification is a valued attribute, that belief based only on belief, not on evidence or reason, should be their goal. Examples on the video include the following statement:

“Holy Spirit,” the youth minister prays, “…give me faith to believe.”

James understands that his skeptic audience will wonder why any person would request “faith” to “believe.” Beliefs, to the skeptic, are ideas built upon examination of evidence offered by reality—not on merely wishing to beli
eve, what the minister calls “faith.”

The videos are interspersed with visual messages of James’ own, skeptic humor borrowed from Internet sources. He often uses a cartoon image of a soldier in a tank labeled “Occam’s Howitzer: Blowing the [explicative] out of stupidity.” James credits a British Youtube atheist with the original idea.

He uses an unorthodox definition of Christianity that features a “Zombie Jesus” and a “rib woman” (Eve). James recognizes the images and text are inflammatory. He calls it a “crude…very humorous and blunt examination (more like, over-simplification) of the core beliefs in Christianity,” and adds that “it exposes the religion for its absurdity, and pulls no punches.”

Hits on James’ videos number in the thousands, with like-minded viewers posting comments like these:

Xphobe: “I couldn’t listen to the whole thing. I’d rather be waterboarded.”

Mickdornfad: “This is brilliant entertainment. I feel sorry for the people of the future (when religion will be gone) who will only get this sort of entertainment in the cinema.”

Percymate: “You should add a laugh track to this [explicative].”

James’ Youtube frankness is a contrast to his personal life, where most people have no idea what he believes or what he’s doing on the Internet. James’ father, a fellow atheist who only recently came out fully to his son, is also a victim of social pressure, and feels a need, for now, to remain closeted about his (lack of) belief.

“My father is definitely an atheist, albeit taking a less intellectual route in making his decision of nonbelief than I have. When I was a young child he rarely attended church, calling himself ‘Catholic,’ but being one in name only (not in practice). The family moved to my current town, and when my mother joined the largest Pentecostal church in the area, she slowly won my father over. He started attending church again—several years ago. I’d even go as far as to say he began to take Christianity seriously.

“As of late, however, we both confide in each other about our lack of belief. He’s always had trouble with tithing, and could never take Bible stories seriously—Noah’s ark, Jonah and the whale, and so on. Like me, he is ‘in the closet,’ and, so far as I know, doesn’t talk to anyone but me about his atheism. The current situation in my family is our greatest concern; at this time it would be a bad idea to ‘come out’ as atheists, really for the sake of other family members. They would experience unnecessary grief and anxiety at a time when that is the last thing we want to do. It would also make it harder to ‘deconvert’ others in the family, if we wished to do so in the future.”

When I sent this article off to James for review, he added a brief note to his approval notice: “…the only other interesting news I have is the recent deconversion of a friend of mine. He used to be a Muslim and will be making videos that I’ll be posting to my channel. He has to keep things even more secretive, since he knows his family has a ‘moral obligation’ to kill him for Allah if they found out!”

My initial instinct was to assume James was kidding about the killing statement. So, I asked. James wrote back, “Well, he has told me that very thing several times, in a way that seems like he wants to be joking about it—but he’s actually concerned. He’s much more afraid of being ‘outed’ than I am, that’s for sure. He only became an atheist in the past month or so, but he certainly doesn’t think he’d ever revert back to Islam again—knowing what he knows now.”

Don’t misunderstand. I know how parental threats or claims of disapproval can be exaggerated in the mind of a minor. I’d be the first to admit that I think it’s far more likely that James’ friend fears—and would face—a social familial backlash and not actual murder.

For the record, though, James and his friend, living as closeted atheist minors in their religious parents’ homes, do not represent a situation that is as rare as you might suspect. It’s fair to say that this represents one of the more familiar categories of letters we receive regularly on the AETV-list—minors writing in to say “I’m afraid my family will find out,” or to ask “how should I break the news to my parents?”

In the meantime, James will continue posting his sacrilege incognito, and hopefully keep us updated on anything significant at his channel.

Why Martyrs?

Lying: for Fun or Profit?
Once upon a time there was a little boy, apprentice to a shepherd, who lived in a small village. One day his mentor told him he was old enough to tend to the flocks alone. The boy was given a staff and instructions that if a wolf approached the flocks, he should shout out long and loud “Wolf! Wolf!” so that the villagers would know he was in trouble and rush to his aid with pitchforks and axes. But, the boy was warned, this was nothing to take lightly. It was important that such an alarm be raised only in the event of real danger—only upon seeing an approaching wolf.

Do you remember the rest of the story? The shepherd boy thought it would be quite funny to upset the town into chaos and watch the population scurry about excited and scared, running to his aid. And he exercised his new power by calling out “Wolf! Wolf!” in the absence of any real danger—much to the anger of the villagers. In the end, when the real wolf approached, no one answered the boy’s cries as the wolves stalked into the flock and killed the sheep.

The main moral to the story has always been that if you lie, people lose trust in your integrity—which could cost you later, when you need their help and trust. But there is something else to be learned. This is an old story. It’s so old that we can’t really say who came up with it. Certainly the “wolf” in the story is undeniably reminiscent of old European tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. But who knows?

Why did the boy lie? We all know what he lost—but we’ve grown so used to the tale that we’ve forgotten to ask the other central question: What did he gain? Before you read on, seriously, consider this question. On what level does the boy’s lie make sense? What did the boy gain? What was his motivation to lie? Does anyone really ever ask this when they remember this story?

To put it simply, it was fun for the boy to lie. It amused him to think that the villagers could be controlled by a word from his mouth—fooled by a simple shout: “Wolf!” An entire audience at his beck and call. So alluring to his mind, he couldn’t wait to test it out.

What I’d like to call out, though, is that in this old story we have an example of a general understanding of something we sometimes forget: Sometimes people don’t need a material motive or benefit to lie. Sometimes, psychologically speaking, lying is it’s own reward. When the boy lied he exercised control of others and amused himself. Why, when we hear this story, do we not respond, “But I don’t understand—why did the shepherd think the boy would lie—and so warn him not to do so? And why did the boy lie? The story makes no sense.” Nobody says this, because the story does make sense. The boy’s lie makes sense. We have no material benefit, but we totally understand the boy’s motive to lie.

We know that people sometimes lie for “no good reason.” Some people like to lie. Some people like to cause chaos. Some people like the idea of controlling others and being the focus of attention—having that small power over others. And we understand that.

In fact, as Munchausen by Proxy demonstrates, some people will kill their own children, lying all the while by claiming the kid is chronically ill, to get that sort of attention.

These are people who are married, who have jobs, who may be surrounded by friends and family who think they’re caring parents. But deep in their brains, these people are very, very needy—beyond anything I, and hopefully you, can imagine. They have a deep need for attention that overrides everything else—even parental instincts to protect their own children.

They don’t need a large audience, either. The Munchausen crowd usually only has immediate friends and family and some hospital staff at their disposal. Maybe a name in the paper if they’re caught. Just like the Boy Who Cried “Wolf!,” it’s extremely localized attention—but worth their child’s life. All it takes is someone to listen to them—to pay attention to them. And infamy works just as well as fame to fill this emotional void.

Consider the Salem Witch Trials. A handful of girls become the focus of a small community’s attention when they feign fits and attacks by local “witches”—knowingly responsible for the torture and executions of a dozen or so innocent friends and neighbors. And for what? For a game of “let’s pretend,” where the girls get to be the center of attention? Where the village listened to them—paid undivided attention to their every word? It must have been intoxicating—all eyes on them, waiting, breathlessly, for their next tale of terror—waiting to see who would be accused next of flying through the air, consorting with feline familiars or having sex with demons.

People who lie for attention will kill their own children. People who lie for attention don’t care if their lies cause harm and death to others. People who lie for attention don’t care if it’s just a handful of people giving it to them. People who lie for attention can be your next door neighbor. They’re among us. They’re not all locked in asylums somewhere. They function as working parts of our society. However “abnormal” they may be deep in their brains, they are “normal” enough to be socially integrated until, and unless, they are eventually discovered when they cross a legal line.

The Claim: “Nobody Would Die for a Lie”
Christian apologist Josh McDowell’s book More Than Just a Carpenter, so it’s stated online, has a chapter titled “Who Would Die for a Lie?” If you’re not familiar with this theist argument, here are a few theists explaining it. I like to let Christians speak for themselves when it comes to restating their claims, so I’m not later accused of building or responding to Strawmen. Emphasis throughout this article is mine.

“Nobody would die for a lie knowing that it was a lie. Many have died for a lie, but they did not realize they were dying for a lie. They thought they were dying for the truth. Fact is, all the Apostles, save John were killed for their preaching. Some were speared to death; some were killed with a sword; some were beheaded and some were beaten to death. Why is this a logical and reasonable validation of the New Testament? The answer is they had first hand knowledge of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.”
Pastor Bobby W. Leggett in the December 23, 2008, Blanco County News (TX) “Focus on Faith” section, contribution of an article titled “Is the Bible Reliable and Valid?”

If you’re like me, you may have had to read it more than once to realize he was actually arguing on behalf of the validity of scripture. You might have noticed that he rebuts himself when he begins with “Many have died for a lie, but they did not realize they were dying for a lie. They thought they were dying for the truth.” It sounds like something an atheist would say to rebut his later point—that these Christian martyrs believed these things happened, but were simply wrong. Still, his conclusion is not that a martyr’s death demonstrates their conviction, but that it demonstrates that what they were convicted of is true. See his last line.

“…the greatest testament to their honesty was the fact that they were persecuted under the Roman government and died for what they believed in. People may die for the truth, but nobody would die for a lie that they conceived.”
Timothy Minich contributed his article to th
e Christian section of a site called “bigissuegrou.com.” It has an atheist section that includes religious articles actually presenting religious views.
Minich supplies an apologist’s view, above.

Just like Leggett’s claim, Minich claims that it’s impossible that anyone would die for a lie if they knew it was a lie—if they, Minich qualifies, conceived the lie themselves.

“This is one of the reasons, years ago, that I decided that the resurrection must have happened. Otherwise who would die for a lie? These were people who had a passion for the message of Christ, who were willing to take up their crosses daily to spread the word. Who goes into strange lands, traveling hot and dusty roads, with little money, into lands that are unsafe and where they could easily die a painful death, all for a lie?”
–Reverend Dr. N. Graham Standish, September 7, 2008, sermon, online at www.calvinchurchzelie.org.

Above, we can’t dismiss that the very first sentence of this theist’s claim undeniably connects the idea that if a person would die for a claim it is evidence the claim “must have happened.” As he notes, these people “could easily die a painful death”—and he cannot accept a person would be willing to risk that over a lie. He doesn’t even add the caveat that it could have been a lie they believed. But I’ll add that, myself, to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s make the claims all as reasonable as possible:

If a person knows their claim is a lie—such as a claim someone made up himself—it is impossible that person would die for it.

I believe this is not only fair, but a generous interpretation of the arguments, as stated, above.

Three Giveaways
I can think of three scenarios right off the bat that defy the claim above. I am going to explain them, and then discount them as “giveaways”—and I will explain why.

Coercion 1: This would be a situation where someone who knows you is being interrogated, and they name you as someone who was running around preaching the resurrection. It is a lie. You know it is a lie. You are brought in and beaten and questioned. You, like many people today who admit to murder due to police interrogations that I will wager are not nearly as horrible as what I would expect to encounter in antiquity, tell them whatever they want to hear to get them to stop beating you. You hope for leniency, but you are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

Coercion 2: This would be identical to coercion except that you know you will be executed. You tell them what they want to hear in order to die, because they are not going to believe you were not preaching, and ultimately you will either die painfully and slowly or be more quickly executed, which you deem is preferable. You confess and are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

Protecting Someone You Love: Someone reports to the authorities that a person in your house was preaching the resurrection. You know it was your child, who is involved with the Christians. You lie and say it was you. You are arrested and executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

In any of the three situations above, somebody would, understandably, die for a lie. They would also be logged as a religious martyr, that is, someone who died for their religion. People would die for lies—even lies they knew were lies. And nobody can deny that people have offered confessions to capital crimes, under coercion, or to protect other people. Such people have been discovered and sometimes exonerated.

But, let’s overlook those demonstrated examples of people who are willing to die for lies they, themselves, have manufactured or understood were lies. Let’s overlook it because the first objection will be that martyrs were preaching the resurrection and refused to recant. So, the above only demonstrates people would die for a lie, but not that the specific Christian examples would have. Honestly, though, if all I do here is put “nobody would die for a lie they knew was a lie” to bed, or make people produce a more supportable and specific claim, I’ll have accomplished something monumental.

So, I give the theists, whether they state it or not, that they meant to offer that a person would not die for a lie without coercion or external pressure of some sort. Now we have a claim that looks more like this:

Nobody would voluntarily, and without external coercion or pressure, offer a false confession to a capital offense, knowing it was false—up to, and including, something he, himself, manufactured.

And I can’t imagine being more fair than that with this claim. I am stretching to give every benefit of reasonableness I can imagine.

My Disclaimer:
In a way I’m torn about even broaching this because some might say the best approach is to question the validity of the tales describing the martyrs. Like any ancient history—any such tale can only be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t mean, with this post, to lend undue credibility to the idea that there were actually “eye witnesses” to a resurrection, or that people who were martyred were actually martyred for refusing to deny a resurrection—versus, for social or religious persecution brought on in the same manner we see religious persecution today. You don’t have to be an eye-witness to be a martyr. And the fact someone dies for a cause doesn’t really tell me what specifically they claimed at trial and if that is the reason they were actually executed. In other words, a person might preach the resurrection, but be tortured and killed as a political subversive.

So, just to be clear, this post is not meant to address the question of whether or not there are legitimate claims of such martyr tales.

This post is only to examine whether or not it is justified to claim that “nobody” would voluntarily face death, without coercion, for a lie they knew was a lie.

As the claim is stated, using “nobody,” means a single example to the contrary, outside our three exclusions, is sufficient to render it failed. But I’m sure the apologists who issue it would want to see at least enough examples to account for multiple martyr accounts. One example will probably be insufficient to get them to lay this down. But we must keep in the front of our minds that we need not address all Christian martyrs. This claim can only be applied to a very narrow subset of historic Christian martyr claims—only those martyrs who we can reasonably claim professed to have seen the resurrection firsthand, refused to recant, and were executed specifically for refusing to recant their claim that a resurrection occurred.

I admit right off the bat that I have not researched the martyr stories. I am familiar with the death of Stephen in Acts 6-7, but the tale says he was arrested on lies against him, and, further, that his testimony that resulted in his execution was that he claimed Jesus had been murdered, not that Jesus resurrected. Just for the r
ecord, that is a very important distinction. And it means that Stephen is discounted as a person who died for the claim that Jesus resurrected.

I have no idea if there are records of early Christians dying for resurrection testimony. But at this point, it is not relevant. I’m only addressing the martyr apologetic, not examining the martyr stories: Are there people who would be willing to lie and put themselves in harm’s way, up to and including facing capital punishment, for an uncoerced absolute fabrication they created themselves?

Facing Execution for Infamy and Notoriety
The following quote is from the paper “False Confessions: Why?” (subtitled “A pathological need for attention, or blurring of reality, may underlie the phenomenon”) by Kathleen Doheny (reviewed by Louise Change, MD), found at the Willams College Psychology Department Web site (Williamstown, Mass.):

“Some false confessors have a pathological need for attention,” Saul Kassin, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., says to explain confessions like [John Mark] Karr’s.

“That is what everyone is speculating in the Karr case,” he says. “The pathology is such that that need predominates. And everything else fades into the background.” Even the risk of prison or death.

“They are driven by the limelight,” adds Eric Hickey, PhD, professor of criminal psychology at California State University, Fresno, and director of the Center of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, Fresno.

Described above, we have a mind, motivated by an insatiable need for attention, very much like our shepherd boy, the Munchausen mother, and the Salem children—all of whom demonstrated that only a small audience is sufficient. But the individuals Doheny is describing, rather than harming others, are willing to accept harm to themselves, including death. Interestingly, the defense for the Munchausen patient could very well be the apologetic applied to the martyrs: “Surely, nobody would kill her own child and lie about it—just for attention?” And yet, she does. And “surely, nobody would put themselves in a situation where they’re lying and claiming to have done things that are known to result in execution?” And yet, they do.

And while even a small, immediate audience suffices for such a person, what a boon it would be to go down in history as a hero to a religious faith—still recognized for your sacrifice more than two thousand years later. If there were such Christian martyrs, could they have thought they were achieving this sort of fame at the time? Certainly history logged martyrs before Christianity. But, honestly, I couldn’t wager a guess. Suffice to say that I have no reason to doubt that their immediate fame or infamy presented sufficient audience to justify their lies and sacrifices. It is right in step with the examples of those who lie for recognition, listed earlier. In fact, in a few cases I came across in the literature, there was one for murder, and another for robbery, issued specifically to impress girlfriends—an audience of one.

These types of lies, were all the buzz right after John Mark Karr came forward in e-mails claiming to have been with JonBenet Ramsey when she died—earning himself a first degree murder charge. But there is some speculation about Karr’s confession specifically. So, I am not using Karr as a shining example.

During his time in the limelight, though, CBS News highlighted the story and made public the issue of “Voluntary False Confession” (VFC). But it wasn’t the first time the U.S. public had seen this sort of weirdness. From the numbers I came across, 200 or more of these death-wish, attention-seeking liars, living as our friends and neighbors, came forward to take credit for the tragic and historically infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder in the 1930s. In a real ironic twist, the event was labeled as “the biggest story since the Resurrection,” by reporter H.L. Mencken. An event that inspired hundreds of attention-seeking liars to beg for execution is compared to the resurrection. Interesting.

In the CBS story, Alan Hirsch, a professor of legal studies at Williams College and founder of the blog The Truth About False Confessions, stated “As hard as it is to believe, there are just many, many false confessions for many reasons, and so [if] I hear that someone confessed, my reaction is not, ‘Oh, they did it.’”

As we’ve already discussed, Hirsch goes on in the story to say, “Voluntary false confessions can be motivated by a suspect’s desire for notoriety. In high profile cases, it is not rare for multiple innocent people to tell the police they are guilty.”

But lest we get too hung up on notoriety, be warned, that’s far from the only motive for a person to voluntarily tell a lie that could, realistically, get them killed.

VFC to be Heard and Imagination Inflation
Also in Doheny’s article, in talking about VFC, Hickey points out, “Other confessors are angry and want to be heard…They want a voice. They don’t feel like they have a voice.”

Hickey does not speculate this is what happened with Karr, though. He thinks it is possible Karr “wanted to be connected to JonBenet so badly. Maybe he thought about it so much he fantasized himself into believing it.” Kassin describes a situation where a person imagines an event, over and over, and becomes uncertain about whether it is real or not. In Doheny’s paper, he says, “The memory research on this is clear—it’s called imagination inflation.”

We even had a caller on the show not long ago who did this as a child. He imagined a vacation his family talked about very often. When he got older, he talked about his memories of it and was informed he hadn’t been with the family during the trip. It happens—to normal people. I know this doesn’t qualify as a “lie” in our context, but I feel compelled to note that part of religious indoctrination and ritual is repetition—to hear the stories over and over. Think: Imagination Inflation.

VFC for Thrills
But there are more recognized psychological motivations that drive otherwise socially integrated people to be willing to offer a VFC. Doheny’s paper describes something called “duping delight.” In plain terms, this is a rush some people get from lying to other people. PhD and a research psychologist Cynthia Cohen attributes eminent psychologist Paul Ekman with coining the term. Cohen adds, “In putting something over on someone, they get a thrill. It’s almost like someone who likes to do bungee jumping. Someone who has duping delight gets excitement from telling a lie and having someone believe it. Maybe they got rewarded for their tall tales in childhood. Perhaps their friends or even their parents thought the behavior was cute.”

VFC Because of Low Self-Esteem
There’s still more reasons for people to give VFC. The item below is from the chapter titled “False confessions, the Temple Murder Case, and the Tucson Four” from the book The Right to Remain Silent, by Gary L. Stewart, former editor of the Arizona Law Review:


“False confessions derive from several psychological conditions. A suspect may feel guilty about something he has done or failed to do, something completely unrelated to the crime in question.”

Stewart talks about the frequency of such confessions as well:

The frequency of false confessions is a vigorously debated question in the legal world. An even more complicated question arises in trying to determine how many wrongful convictions are based on false confessions. Estimates range from a low of 35 to a high of 840 annually.

Bear in mind that a false confession is not necessarily a VFC. There is a difference. But also keep in mind the Lindbergh case, alone, inspired around 200 immediate VFCs. People continue to confess to the still unsolved Black Dahlia murder. And some, like convicted murderer Henry Lee Lucas, keep confessing to murder after murder in which they had no involvement whatsoever.

While I’d like to think we wouldn’t actually convict such a person, the truth is we only know about the ones we know about. If any have been executed, we have no way to know that short of an extremely unlikely post-mortem exoneration. All I intend to offer here is that, based on what we know about reality, it is not unreasonable to reject the claim that “nobody” would, voluntarily, die for a lie, if he knew it was a lie.

More About Guilt
The guilt complex motive was one that interested me immediately, since Christianity and guilt have a well-known and often humorously portrayed love-affair dating back to its Hebrew religious roots, but amplified with the resurrection story. Anyone would be hard pressed to try and claim that people who feel unworthy aren’t drawn like files to a religion that preaches redemption that one cannot access through one’s own worth. A religion that specifically reinforces a reality that all humans are wretched would offer a great deal of appeal, in the form of relation and identity, to someone with deep-seated self-esteem problems.

Someone recently referred to this as the “I am the Universe” fallacy on our tv list. The idea is that however I feel, whatever I think, whatever I would do, it’s the same for everyone. It’s not a rare perspective to exhibit. And I do get the irony of my next comment which is to say I can’t imagine that anyone hasn’t made this mistake at least once in their life. You generally get a heaping helping of reality slapped onto your plate after you make such a universal assumption, and find yourself corrected by someone who isn’t exactly like you. A mild example would be that you buy a chocolate cake for a dinner party, plop it down on the table and say, “Doesn’t everyone love to eat chocolate cake?!” The hostess replies, “I’m afraid I’m allergic to chocolate,” and you have a Eureka! moment where you realize that you are, in fact, not the universe, and probably should not have presumed something about others, without checking.

But if I’m riddled with self-esteem issues that I can’t free myself from, how could I even imagine a person without such issues? The fact is, someone who is motivated by jealousy will assume that they can make others jealous (that we all suffer that same fault). We think “this would motivate me, so it should motivate you.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. But if I am horribly insecure and can’t imagine what it’s like to be secure, odds are I will suspect the world, like me, is also insecure. And the religion that says, “Don’t we all realize, deep down, that we’re just not good enough, that we need a savior?” will reach into my brain and light me up like Christmas. It will speak to me and echo my self-imposed, delusional reality. And it will ring true—for me.

The guilt motivation for a VFC—a way of punishing myself—fits Christian martyrdom like a glove. If I think I’m a wretch who deserves hell fire, and that I killed the uniquely good messiah with my wickedness, then paying with my life while I witness to god would be the most glorious death imaginable.

Would a Christian saint lie, though? Someone so devoted to god? Absolutely, yes, if they were suffering from these issues. Good Christians have lied without gaining notoriety, redemption, or a rush. Every scribe that ever doctored a canon text to make it a little more orthodox is guilty of lying for the cause of Christianity. I’m sure they were aware it was dishonest. But a higher cause, a nobler goal was prompting them. The texts were revised. We have the notes in our Bibles today describing which passages have been added or altered from older or better manuscripts. Quotes were “fixed.” Characters were made more consistent or gentler. But it was all to improve on the message—all for the greater good.

Yes, people who subscribe vehemently to a doctrine will lie and die for it—even if the doctrine promotes honesty as a virtue. It’s weirdly hypocritical and contradictory—but since when have religious zealots (or any of us, for that matter) been immune, as humans, from hypocrisy or contradiction? Aren’t these, ironically, some of the very flaws Christianity says we’re all subject to? On that note, how ironic that an apologetic would be built around the idea that a human being couldn’t possibly act in a way that makes no sense. We see it all the time. The Bible condemns us for it and calls it sin and fault. I call it being human.

Would a reasonable person die for such a lie? No. But since when are humans—even most humans—reasonable? Where in the world was that fantasy bred?

Other researchers also noted the guilt motivator in VFC. In “The Psychology of False Confessions,” Richard P. Conti, PhD, Department of Psychology, College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ, writes:

“…Other possible motives for voluntary false confessions include an ‘unconscious need to expiate guilt over previous transgressions through self-punishment,’ (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985, p. 77). Gudjonsson (1992) points out that a previous transgression can be either a real or an imagined act. Gudjonsson further states that the transgression does not necessarily have to be identifiable, ‘some individuals have a high level of generalized guilt, which is not related to a specific transgression, and this may influence a range of their behaviours [sic], including their need to volunteer a false confession.’”

The Link Between Guilt and Depression
The following quotes come from psychologist, Dr. Craig Bennell’s paper “Voluntary False Confessions: An Overview.” Among other things, this paper explains that the guilt that drives some people is actually part of depression—a very common psychological disorder that afflicts huge numbers of people:

“In cases where severely depressed individuals falsely confess, the confession is viewed as an attempt by the individual to relieve intense feelings of guilt. It is proposed that the guilt is generated by past events and experiences and is projected onto some external event [eg. a crime] which becomes the focus for the patients guilt (Gudjonsson, 1992, p. 241). To relieve this guilt, it follows that the individual is motivated to seek out some kind of punishment. In the case of falsely confessing to a crime
they did not commit, this punishment comes via fines, prison sentences,
even death. These individuals seem to believe that once they confess to their
misdeeds and are publicly punished, their guilt will finally cease (Gudjonsson, 1992).”

“It has been proposed, in cases of personality disordered individuals, that the false confession is motivated by a need to enhance an important psychological need, commonly one s self-esteem (Gudjonsson, 1992). Kassin and Wrightsman (1985) suggest that ‘the individual has a pathological need to become infamous, even if it means having to face the prospect of punishment…’

“Certainly, in cases of voluntary false confessions where the confessor is clearly disturbed, perhaps even confessing to crimes that do not exist (Gudjonsson, 1992), the task of assessing the legitimacy of their confession, though time consuming, would seem less complex. However, for those voluntary false confessions that are more difficult to identify, it would be beneficial to have a system for predicting which individuals were falsely confessing—herein lies the problem. For as long as false confessions have been the studied, researchers have recognized that people, including those who deal with deception on a regular basis (Ekman and O’Sullivan, 1991), are not good at detecting whether or not someone is being deceptive (Horvath et al., 1994; Kohnken, 1987). This is not to say that research hasn’t identified observable behavioral differences between ‘truth tellers’ and ‘deceivers,’ only that the ability of people to recognize these differences is not very impressive.”

I’d Know If Someone Were Lying to Me
And here Bennell hits on something really interesting. Humans are not very good at recognizing liars. Remember that CBS News story? Hirsch, during that story said, “The rule of thumb is that everybody does overreact to a confession—there tends to be an assumption that it’s true.” In fact, in my reading on this topic, I read research demonstrating that people will say they would not be influenced by a confession if they found it was coerced; but when presented with a coerced confession, as the only difference in evidence in mock trial experiments, they convict more often than they did without the confession.

People’s brains love confessions. And people’s brains don’t work well when it comes to weeding out good ones from bad ones. No wonder the martyr argument sways so many. Apparently, even if I were able to show that all the martyrs ever recorded were killed due to coerced confessions—whether we’re proud of it or not—we’d still have a lot of people arguing that the martyrs were telling the truth about a resurrection.

But even more painful than the reality that we strongly tend to believe whatever lies and delusions flow from another person’s mouth, there is an embarrassing inverse correlation between how well we tell fact from fiction versus how convinced we are that we’re good at telling fact from fiction. The following breakdown comes from a paper titled “I’d Know a False Confession if I Saw One’: A Comparative Study of College Students and Police Investigators,” by Saul M. Kassin, Christian A. Meissner, and Rebecca J. Norwick, published in Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 29, No. 2, April 2005. Pay attention to the following, and don’t just let your eyes gloss over. This study asked convicted criminals to give both true confessions of their crimes and false, scripted confessions. They asked students and police investigators to review the confessions and judge whether they were true or false.

“Across participants, conditions, and items, the overall accuracy rate was 53.9%—a level of performance that is both unimpressive and nonsignificant relative to chance performance (z-test for proportions = 0.87). In signal detection terms, the hit rate (the percentage of inmates whose true confessions were correctly identified as true) was 63.6% and the false alarm rate (the percentage of inmates whose false confessions were incorrectly identified as true) was 56.1%. On a 1–10 point scale, the overall mean confidence level was 6.76. Interestingly, judgment accuracy and confidence were negatively correlated…”

In plain English, the research found that none of the subjects did very well at recognizing fact from fiction. In fact, the results were so dismal that you’d have done just as well if you didn’t hear or watch the confessions and just categorized the “true” and “false” tapes using eenee-meenee-minee-moe. Law enforcement officers felt more confident than the students that they could tell a true confession from a false one. But the students, who were less certain, judged better.

In the end it’s my guess that the martyr argument persists for the following reasons:

1. The “I am the universe fallacy.” I am not the type of person who would die for a lie. And I don’t know people who would die for a lie. Ergo, nobody would die for a lie.

Even though we can easily demonstrate that “some people would face execution for a lie” is a realistic claim, it’s simply hard to get people to accept that it’s a big world out there with a lot of diversity, especially if you’re into a religion where diversity is condemned and conformity is rewarded and constantly reinforced. Who hasn’t heard that “atheists don’t ‘not believe’ in god—they know there’s a god. They’re just being defiant”?

“I am the Universe” lives! And I don’t see “I am the Universe” going away just because I posted this article; but, I hope to have demonstrated the claim “nobody would die for a lie” can absolutely not stand unchallenged in the face of demonstrated VFCs. “Nobody would die for a lie,” is along the same lines as arguing that “no woman would stay with a man who hits her.” If I didn’t know that this actually occurs in reality, certainly I would be inclined to agree it was reasonable to assert nobody would continue to live with someone who beats them if they could leave. It sounds reasonable. It makes perfect sense. And yet, every one of us knows it’s false and does not correlate to reality.

2. We put a high value on confessions, and we think we can tell when someone is offering us an honest or dishonest confession, even though we really can’t. And the more we believe we can, the more likely we can’t.

So, all a martyr has to do is make a confession. Right off the bat, some people will believe the martyr, simply because people believe confessions. Further, even if it’s a lie, a lot of people won’t be able to tell, but will feel confident they know the confession is true. In one article, it noted that some people will convict on a confession of guilt, even when confronted with compelling evidence of innocence. Our brains simply like to believe confessions. And the apparent validity of the confession and whether or not it correlates to the evidence is, to an uncomfortable degree, irrelevant to our brains.

Simply stated, a who
le lot of people tend to believe what other people confess—too much and for horrible reasons—even for no reason at all.

In the end, though I have one rhetorical question about the martyr argument: What would be the point of any Christian dying for the truth? According to the stories, God knows whether you believe or not—doesn’t He? Would merciful Jesus condemn you to hell for avoiding torture by lying to evil men—and going on to spread his Word and save others, later? If you believe, repent, confess and ask for forgiveness—isn’t salvation guaranteed? “Not martyring yourself,” and “lying” are not unpardonable sins. What is the gain of martyrdom in Christianity? How, in the world did that catch on?

A Blasphemy Against Humanity

The Austin American-Statesman yesterday ran a New York Times editorial by Nicholas D. Kristof. It began:

“Karachi, Pakistan–Afterward, they comforted each other with the blasphemy: ‘It was God’s will.'”

So, how could I not be intrigued, especially because most Christians I know have a vague notion of god as all-powerful, all-knowing, and the creator of all things, that would make the phrase “it was god’s will” a logically inescapable conclusion and necessary description of any event occurring in this universe. I had the feeling that whatever Kristof would describe would be absolutely within the realm of this “god’s will”–according to the model of god most believers seem to put forward. But I wanted to see for myself, so I read on.

Not surprisingly, I was correct. The story is about the family politics of a pregnant woman’s husband–and the politics of many women’s families in this region. The $3.75 ride to a hospital was considered far too extravagant when the time came for the baby to arrive. Lest your sympathies get the better of you, one aunt said that if the family had known the child was going to be a boy (which it was), they’d have paid far more for the cab fare. It was less a question of poverty than one of concern. No the family is not well off, but their logic was that it was silly to waste money on a hospital.

While the article was more about a misogynistic society (which I feel sure a fundamentalist religion based on the great “He” doesn’t help), I kept looking for the “blasphemy” in the statement about god’s will. After the child dies (the mother lives), the mother is devastated, and the father says, “It is God’s will. There is nothing we can do.”

I agree with Kristof’s call of “bullshit” on this one. But where is the blasphemy if I were to call myself a believer? As a nonbeliever, I want to call this one blasphemy against humanity, if there can be such a thing. Certainly it was our will for this child to die–humanity’s will. It could have been avoided by human intervention. It was not necessary in a purely human world without gods. But the child died. And humans are responsible. To say that what humans do and allow–whether good or bad–has anything to do with gods is a blasphemy against our own species. But it’s no blasphemy against god. If god is what people claim god is in many cases, it’s a reality–a truth–to call any event “god’s will.”

Did god create everything–a universe where we cannot escape cause and effect? If so, this child’s death was written into the “stars” (if you will) the moment the singularity popped, or the moment he spoke it all here 6,000 years ago. If he didn’t create it, he’s off the hook. If he did, he killed this child as surely as the child’s own family.

Does god know everything? Did he know what he was doing? Does he understand the universe or not? If he built it and had so little understanding of what he was doing, he’s off the hook in much the same way a mentally challenged person might be off the hook for a double-homocide. He still caused the harm; he’s just too irresponsible to be held accountable for what he caused. If god built it and understood it–this god has no excuse. He actually produced the universe in such a way that this child would die, and either did not care, or meant it to be so.

Does god have the power to alter anything in this universe or impact human events? If god was aware of this child’s plight, and was able to intervene, but did not, then he’s just as guilty as the family members (ironically it was the men in the family) who felt the hospital was the best place for this mother, but did nothing to enforce their preference. If there is a god who is aware, cares at all, and can help, who does not, then this child’s death was as much that god’s choice as the family’s.

Is it blasphemy to say god is not the creator? God is retarded–as gods go? Or that god lacks the power (is too castrated) to intervene in our lives?

Does our society truly embrace a god that keeps players safe at sporting events, but can’t be expected to help a woman in difficult labor to be healthy and well and have a live baby in the end? It sure looks that way.

When I say “god did not create the universe,” or “there is no god that is all powerful and gives a care,” or “there is no god that knows everything”–or “there is no god,” I’m sure to be lambasted by Christians everywhere for my arrogance and, well, blasphemy. They may not call it “blasphemy” much in these times, but that’s what it is and why it offends so many believers to say such things.

Who gets to say what is blasphemy in the world of believers? To many, It’s blasphemy to claim god doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of the whole universe, as Kristof implies. But to Kristof, when one injustice occurs, it’s blasphemy to say god had any knowledge or power to alter events. What sort of ineffectual god does Kristof imagine, I wonder? I have to think he imagines something, because he brought up the “god’s will” phrase twice in a small article, and called it a blasphemy both times; and the story itself had precious little to do with gods, and everything to do with humans and human society.

I wish he would have clarified it was only a blasphemy to humanity, and could not possible be a blasphemy for any god model that would matter in this universe. I wish Kristof would have explained what he means by “god.” But he did neither, unfortunately. But I think, disappointed as it makes me, he meant it in the same ludicrous apologetic way we hear it used all the time: With god all things are possible, but, somehow, helping an infant, unable to help itself, was way too much to ask–way beyond god’s scope.

It’s called having your cake and eating it, too. And it’s logically impossible. But try telling that to someone who’s been sufficiently indoctrinated. If that is really what Kristof meant, he’s as guilty as holding to irrational, unhelpful beliefs as the culture he’s writing to criticize. Like many Christians, he would be promoting that it’s OK to devote some part of one’s worldview to a logically inconsistent, impossible god who helps us not at all–and credit that god with all things good while blaming humans for all things evil. And that sort of hosed up religious belief is a part of the foundation that ultimately killed this child of a Muslim world, isn’t it?

Perhaps instead of writing about gods and blasphemies, he should have “kept it real” and just said, “People could have helped this child. People did not. Dragging god into this as a ‘will’ or a victim of ‘blasphemy,’ helps us not at all. It adds nothing to this equation that can only possibly examine what people can do, what they did/did not do, and what other people could have/might have done to impact the reasons for these poor choices and tragic outcomes.” And if I can add, reasons like holding to irrational beliefs about women and gods that led to this child’s death.

I’m not sure how much impact a writer like Kristof can have in cutting the rope of irrationality that holds these people to unhealthy decisions, while he’s involved in actually braiding more of that same rope. It’s not reasonable to condemn real-world injustices that are the result of a god model I personally support.

I can’t know that Kristof doesn’t have some minority deistic ideology. But I can know that many people reading what he wrote–and he would know this as well–are interpreting it as, “That’s right, my loving creator-of-all-things, all knowing, all powerful god would never allow something like this; how dare anyone blame this evil on god.” It would escape them that the fact that this event actually occurred should be evidence that, if their god model exists, it would and did allow such an event–and therefore becomes logically inconsistent and, tah-dah, nonexistent. But I will almost guarantee you that hundreds of
thousands read his column, held this model of god, and condemned this “blasphemy” in like manner. They want their cake, but they want to eat it, too. And that’s impossible. And the scariest part is that no matter how much you try to explain that eating the cake will result in the cake being gone, they will insist that you are the one who simply does not get it.

To some, unfortunately not so small degree, it truly is a mad world.

Year One: Not Quite What I Expected

Alert: Spoilers are included in this article.

I have been working at my job pretty close to nonstop for several weeks and needed a break and some levity. I sometimes enjoy mindless humor and was interested in seeing either Land of the Lost or Year One. Since nobody I know is interested in seeing Year One, I decided that if I was going to see a film alone, that would be the one to see. So, I went to the local Alamo Drafthouse where someone else could cook dinner for a change and I could have a drink and watch something that required no thought. (I feel compelled to mention I parked right next to Matt D’s car, but I had no paper with me and was unable to leave a note. I didn’t ever see Matt, but just to say, “Hey Matt! I saw your car last night!”)

While I can’t say Year One actually prompted too much thought, and it was about what I expected from Jack Black and Harold Ramis, it was not what I expected overall. I thought it was going to be a confused film about an ancient man in the ancient world with a thin plot about whatever. What it was, was a statement about religion and belief (or more to the point, unbelief and the reasons for unbelief). Since I had not the slightest clue I would be writing about this film, I made no notes. Any quotes I offer are purely paraphrases to the best of my memory. And most likely I’ll have to visit IMDb to get the characters’ names.

The theme of the film was very reminiscent of Life of Brian: A man, confused as being god’s messenger, stumbles through a series of loosely written Bible tales, crossing paths with Old Testament legends and giving them a bit of a reinterpretation from an outsider’s perspective.

In the film, the main character Zed is a tribe member in a group of hunter gatherers who live in an unspecified forest region. He is no hunter. He is no gatherer. But he is charming and funny and sometimes lucky (but mostly unlucky with a lucky twist). He has a way of making lemonade from life’s lemons. His friend, Oh, may represent “Oh” in the “Eureka” sense. Of the two “Oh” is the one most likely to see the reality of what is actually happening or likely to happen; but what he can’t predict are the random twists of fate that consistently turn Zed’s harebrained plans into successes, even while things appear to get worse and worse for them.

Zed gets tired of the status quo and decides to shake things up. He can’t be the best “male” in this society where brawn and physical prowess are that standards of quality, but he can be the smartest guy–just not with his current level of intellect. So, Zed decides to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. In the film, the tree is not about good and evil, but simply knowledge. Certainly the fruit looks magical enough, eerily florescent golden apple-like somethings. And Zed eats it despite the warnings of his friend, Oh, that it’s “forbidden.” Oh can’t answer Zed’s questions about why the fruit is forbidden–it’s simply forbidden. And you don’t eat forbidden things. That’s not good enough for Zed. Clue number one that there were going be to some things examined: Someone was immediately challenging the idea that “forbidding” things without any understanding of why, is not justified.

Zed believes the fruit endows him with super-knowledge, but in reality there is nothing to demonstrate he is any more intelligent than he was before he ate it. He asks Oh to test him and he pretty well fails in the capacity to wisely answer any question Oh throws at him. “Where does the sun go at night?” Zed replies with “Pass. Next question.”

Zed is found out and meets with the village shaman who tries to explain “forbidden,” unsuccessfully, as well. But in the end Zed is banished and Oh ends up going with him. Oh explains there is little point in walking anywhere, because they’ll only end up at the edge of the world–it’s “general knowledge.” When they come to the edge of a large canyon where they can see far out over the horizon, Oh realizes Zed was right to question the assumption about the world’s edge.

They first meet Caine and Abel, which is somewhat uneventful except that it is the guys’ first time seeing a “farmer” and someone who works in animal husbandry–forms of subsistence unfamiliar to them. And this is part of the film as well: As Zed travels, he begins to learn that there are many different views on topics thought to be “general knowledge.” Caine is a bit bi-polar and ends up killing Abel and “inviting” Zed and Oh to dinner with the family–including Adam and Lilith, a lesbian–who represents yet another new view Zed has never encountered.

Caine takes Zed and Oh away, explaining that when Abel is found, they will be suspected as the killers, since they are “two drifters.” They get their first ride on a cart and see, for the first time, a wheel. Caine is struck in the head by lightening, which leaves his famous “mark.” But rather than be disappointed, Caine is excited: “Wow! What are the odds of that?! It didn’t leave a mark, did it?”

Later Zed and Oh encounter “slavery” when they are sold by Caine as slaves. They run into some of the old villagers who have been taken as slaves as well, and Zed explains he has been chosen by god–referring to god as “He.” One of the women from the village asks “Why do you assume god is a ‘he’?” to which Zed gives Oh a condescending “do-you-believe-this-chick?” eye roll and says, “What do you even say to that!”

Zed, in a cage-cart traveling to the home of his new masters, asserts “Nobody can own a human being–except, I guess, for the guy who bought us.” This brings up the question of moral rights versus the reality of a situation and reminded me of the scene in Life of Brian where one of the men rallies for the “right” of men to bear children.

The slave train is raided by Romans, and Zed and Oh escape and run up a sand dune. Later they decide to try to find the slaves, who are on their way to Sodom, and free them, since some of them were from their old tribe. They lose the caravan, and wander the desert, where Abraham comes into the story. It isn’t hard to make Abraham look like a nut job without deviating all that much from the actual Bible stories. We first meet him as he’s building a sacrificial pyre with son, Isaac. “Where is the sheep, dad?” Abraham replies, “The Lord will provide.”

As Abraham begins to bind Isaac’s wrists, Isaac says in a nervous voice, “What is this, dad? Is this some kind of magic trick?” When Abraham picks him up to put him atop the woodpile, Isaac begins to panic and says, “Is this about me not cleaning my tent last Thursday?! Because I’m really sorry!” Abraham insists god has commanded him to kill Isaac, to which Isaac rightly replies, “If god told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that?!”

The irony here is that we so often see the foolishness of what Isaac asserts–“would you jump off a bridge if so-and-so told you to?” But we, as a Christian culture, think nothing of idolizing a historic figure who would do far worse. Isaac’s example of jumping off a bridge is nothing compared to what Abraham is about to do. Obviously Abraham is mad, and, since he would murder his own son, it’s a safe bet he also would jump off a bridge for god.

Abraham raises a large knife and says some sacrificin’ words, and just then we hear “STOP!” It’s Zed and Oh. “What are you doing? Are you going to kill that kid?!”

Abraham looks embarrassed, half-heartedly tries to hide the knife, and says, “No. This is my son. We were just playing a game. It’s called burneyburney, knifey knifey.” Then he plucks up more courage and asserts god told him to sacrifice the boy, asking Zed, “Do you speak for the Lord?” To which Zed lights up and answers sincerely that he has been chosen by god, and that yes, he does speak for the Lord. Abraham accepts Zed’s claim and praises god for sending a messenger to stay his hand and save Isaac. He invites them to dinner where he regales them with stories of the wicked twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and warns them that god has promised to destroy the cities. They are cities where people eat, drink, engage in all manner of debauchery, and where the streets are filled with whores. “Which city has the most whores?” Zed asks, “Uh, just so we know which one to avoid the most.”

After a good feast and a lot of wine drinking, Abraham takes Zed and Oh and Isaac to a ridge where he announces that “all this land” has been given to him by god. Zed and Oh are impressed, but the cynical Isaac adds, as an aside to the strangers, “Yeah, but god forgot to tell anybody else about it–so, we’re constantly having to fight somebody over it.”

Abraham then announces that as a pact with god, he plans to circumcise all the males in his group, starting with himself, Isaac, Zed and Oh. “Circumcise? What is that?” Abraham describes what he intends, to which Zed and Oh are rightly appalled. But Zed, always rolling with the punches, says, “You know, Abe. We all had a lot to eat and drink tonight. And I’m sure this circumcision thing seems like a really cool idea to you right now. But why don’t we sleep on it? In the morning, you know, we can always cut it off then, if you still think that’s what you want to do…”

Zed and Oh escape, but hear poor Isaac screaming as they run off over the desert hills. Later Isaac catches up to them and leads them to Sodom if they promise to buy him drinks when they get there. Isaac explains that he and his buddies are always sneaking off to Sodom, loosely portrayed as an ancient Las Vegas, for a good time. Isaac abandons them at the gates and they are immediately arrested for disturbing the peace and find themselves facing a scary punishment at the hands of a particularly large, intimidating, and sadistic guard whom they continually encounter throughout the film.

They are saved by Caine, who has become a member of the Sodom guard and identifies them as his “brothers.” They also become members of the guard. And one day, Zed fails to kneel when the procession of a beautiful princess passes. She notices this and admires it. Her step-father is the king of Sodom. Sodom is suffering from a drought that the high priest, advisor, and king are all concerned with. And in order to end the drought they are sacrificing virgins left and right, a “waste of perfectly good virgins!” according to Zed and Oh. Zed and Oh try to understand the sacrifice, and they ask about it. “So, it hasn’t rained in a long time. And you need it to rain. So, you’re burning women who have never had sex to death? How does that work, exactly?” To this, one bystander complains, “Look, I’m just here to enjoy the sacrifice with my family.”

In Sodom there is a temple with a “Holy of Holies,” which, in the Bible is actually part of the Hebrew temple. But like the temple in the Bible, anyone who enters the Holy of Holies will die. Zed’s first introduction to the room is when the princess explains that she knew when he did not kneel that he was a man chosen by god who could enter the temple, without dying, and plead for an end to the drought–and that god will certainly hear him. Oh’s first encounter is from the high priest who tells him that anyone, but the high priest, will die upon entering the room.

Oh: “Wow, so, you kinda hafta wonder whether the guys who finished building it died then, right? I mean, did they get like a grace-period second to get out of there or did they just die instantly as soon as they laid the last brick?”

The priest in perfect apologetic style answers, as though he knows, that “There was a four-second grace period.”

Oh: “So, does it just kill people or does it kill animals as well? Like, if a fly gets in, would it just drop dead on the floor the second it enters?”

The priest confirms that it kills even animals.

Oh: “So, there are just dead bugs all over the floor in there?”

No, the priest explains, because they are “vaporized.” They are vaporized, apparently by a “deadly vapory vapor thing that turns them to vapor.”

It reminded me so much of my discussions with many theists.

Young Oh ends up in the temple hiding from the oppressive and gay high priest. Zed ends up in there at the prompting of the princess who feeds into his belief that he is special and chosen, and who promises to help free his friends if he will help her end the drought.

Zed takes it very seriously. Finally, the moment for which he was chosen has arrived–to meet and speak to god. He did not die upon entering the room. Clearly, he is the chosen one. Until he sees Oh hiding behind a pillar. Zed reasons that Oh is not dead because he is a friend of the chosen one. Oh, alternately, suggests he is alive because, perhaps there is actually “nothing” in the temple. And a serious, and loud, argument ensues.

They are caught and sentenced to be stoned to death. But Zed saves them when it dawns on him to ask the king, who is present at the stoning, a clever question: “Why didn’t I die in the Holy of Holies? Because I’m the chosen one!” He manages to whip up the crowd so that the king is advised not to kill Zed and Oh, but they are sentenced to hard labor instead–which is portrayed unmistakeably as a scene right out of the classic film, Ten Commandments. Oh stomps mud in a pit, ala Charlton Heston, with another man who explains he’s not a slave, but a “volunteer.” This was reminiscent of the apologetic that slavery was so much nicer back in the day. Yes, I’m sure people were falling all over themselves to sign up!

Volunteer: “The mud is really great for your skin. Look how great my skin is. Ask me why I have such great skin. Go on, ask me.”

Oh (in a tired, uninterested voice): “Why do you have such great skin?”

Volunteer: “The mud!”

Oh: “Yeah. I knew you were going to say that.”

The volunteer then stretches and adds, “Man, gotta love bein’ outside!”

The king then decides to sacrifice the princess and her two handmaids (fellow villagers of Zed’s and Oh’s), and Zed tries to save them. In a series of mishaps, he brings down a huge scaffolding, and Oh sees his opportunity, “A sign! It’s a sign!” In the mayhem that follows, eventually none of the women is thrust into the fire (a firey bull’s head), but the high priest ends up falling in covered in oil. A huge fireball results. The crowd is stunned and there is a moment of shock that Zed takes advantage of: “How about that by the high priest?! What a sacrifice he just made! Let’s hear it for the high priest!” And he begins to clap. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the idea of “sacrifice” and what it meant to be a high priest in days of yore when your “sacrifice” consisted of someone else’s life! But tossing yourself into the fire? Now that would be a real sacrifice.

I can’t promise everyone would like this movie. If you can’t stomach Jack Black, don’t even try. I can’t claim it’s deep or offers anything you probably haven’t already considered. But I do think it offers a second look at some events that seem too familiar to too many. Christians who idolize Abraham for trying to kill his son should take note of what they might think, or have thought, if they had encountered this act as Zed did. Would they intervene or let this take place? “Well, I mean, if god said ‘do it,
‘ I guess, go for it…?”

I have a feeling the film won’t play long. But there is nothing visual about it that won’t translate perfectly well to small screen. You won’t lose anything by waiting for DVD release if you think you might like it. And, if you’re up for a lighthearted view of religious history, you might find it entertaining.

What Is an Atheist?

Someone contacted the list with the following claims:

Assertion 1: An agnostic is someone who is neither a theist (someone who believes a god exists) nor an atheist (someone who does not believe a god exists OR someone who denies a god exists).

While I agree with this, I soon found out I have different reasons for doing so. I go by the theologically classical definition of agnostic as someone who addresses knowledge regarding god, and finds it lacking, versus the Gnostic, who believes that knowledge about god is accessible and perhaps even that he has such knowledge. The person making claim 1 above, however, asserts that an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves that a god exists. They wished to use that definition alone because it is what their friends agreed was right, and it was listed as a “colloquially” acceptable definition in his dictionary, some version of Merriam-Webster.

I already knew the dilemma this person was creating for himself. To define the agnostic off the bat as not being a person who believes a god exists leaves little room for then trying to defend that the agnostic is someone who does not believe a god exists. I think most people would see the problem with the position even before it unfolds:

If a “senior” is defined as one who is at or over 65 years old, and you assert that I am “not a senior,” there is no escaping that you have just indicated I am not at or over 65. And the writer does agree that a theist is a person who does believe a god exists. Thankfully he understands at least one significant definition in theological terminology.

I knew he was going to encounter difficulty, then, in defending his claim that this agnostic is no atheist. Literally, anyone who is not a theist (someone who does believe a god exists) is an atheist (someone who does not believe a god exists). And this person who contacted us, let’s call him “J,” for brevity, agreed that the atheist is correctly defined as “someone who does not believe a god exists.” In fact, he agreed to this during a call to the show–on the air–recorded for posterity, before he wrote to us.

So then, his argument begins with this:

The agnostic does not believe a god exists (or else he’d be a theist), but he also does not, not believe a god exists (or else he’d be an atheist). So that this magical being, the agnostic, both does “not believe” and also does not “not believe”–which is a logical impossibility. I can no more accomplish this as a human being than I can both be a senior and not be a senior.

I accepted the writer as merely a person who is ignorant regarding where the term “agnostic” originated and how it is used in actual theological discussion of these issues. The Gnostic movement is one that concerned itself with knowledge about god. Certainly knowledge is a subset of belief, but one that was the focus of the Gnostics that separated their ideology from broader definitions of belief. And I do not claim this distinction is without problems.

The term that defines the response to Gnosticism, “agnosticism,” was coined by Thomas Huxley, in the mid-1800s, to describe his rejection of Gnosticism, and subsequently all claims to knowledge regarding gods. He was not claiming that no one has belief in gods and that belief in gods is unavailable to people. He was making a statement about a subset of belief, knowledge–which is usually far more narrowly (and problematically) defined.

The idea that an agnostic is simply someone who is wishy-washy about their belief in god is a misconception that has grown as discussion of “atheist issues” has become more common. And the reason it grows is that people love to talk about religion, but they don’t seem to like to actually research it or inform their opinions before they open their mouths.

In short, it’s like the word “founder,” which means to have trouble staying afloat. The word fell out of common usage and began to be “replaced” with “flounder”–a type of fish. One suggestion is that people equated it to “flopping around” and being unable to move well, and that’s why they began to describe something that doesn’t progress well as “floundering,” more and more often. Today, when you look up the word “flounder,” it actually does generally have a secondary definition that makes it synonymous with “founder.”

Dictionaries are wonderful tools. They inform us both of classically correct usage, but also must reflect common usage–which can become correct usage over time. With “agnostic,” we have a common misconception that may one day find its way into a secondary form of correct usage. But it carries with it the problem of making all such defined agnostics atheists. And there was a moment when J began to realize this as a necessary conclusion, when he accused me of trying to say that all agnostics were, in fact, atheists. I honestly replied that I do not use his definition of “agnostic,” and that I know many agnostic theists; but that if I am compelled to use the term “agnostic” by defining it off the top as a person who is not a theist, and, by necessity, then, a person who does not believe a god exists, then I cannot agree to the second half of the definition–which is logically impossible–that he also is not an atheist and not someone who does not believe a god exists. A human cannot be both someone who does “not believe” a claim and someone who does not “not believe” a claim.

So, this, I chalked up to ignorance and misconception on J’s part. I did so, at least, until it went on for more than a few exchanges and I began to suspect there was more here than just simple correction of a misconception required. J was defending, not honestly communicating. A person honestly communicating would have, at or before this point, pretty well have said, “Maybe I hadn’t thought this through, and it appears I might be working under some misconceptions.” But not J. J has something to prove, which leads to his next assertion:

Assertion 2. The atheist is making a positive claim and we can extrapolate other atheist beliefs from the position “I do not believe a god exists.”

Specifically, when J first called us, J wanted to be able to say that we can know what atheists do believe, by knowing what they do not believe. And that is simply not the case. And I should add that it’s no more the case than me claiming I can know what someone believes when they claim they do believe a god exists. I have no idea what they mean by “god” nor what impact their god has on anything, including on themselves. But, more specifically, he thinks he knows what an atheist thinks of universal origins, according to his call. His argument is along the lines of this: Either a god created the universe or a god did not. If you don’t believe in a god, then you must believe in naturalistic origins (and I assume that would lead to the common misconception that all atheists believe big bang, which I know to be false).

The idea here goes something like this: “I assert that fairies created the universe. If you do not believe in fairies, then I know how you think the universe was created.”

Obviously that would be ludicrous. But as is so often the case, the theist can’t see how absurd it is when you use “god” instead of “fairies.” But using fairies, anyone should be able to see how ludicrous this claim becomes. Of course you could assert you know that however I believe the universe came to be, it is a non-fairy model. That much is fair–but as far as asserting tha
t you have some insight into what I do think pumped out the universe (if I’m not obstinately holding to steady-state theory, and asserting that the idea it was “produced” at all is nonsensical to me)–what I do believe about it–is unjustified.

Here I should note that J does not dispute the broad definition of atheist on the surface. If you show him a dictionary that indicates that the atheist either does not believe in the existence of gods OR believes no gods exist, J will say “OK.” However, I don’t think J really comprehends what he’s agreeing to here–or at least he didn’t at first.

The idea that I say you can be “one or the other” means that the “one” is not the “other.” And while I think anyone could understand that, J is, apparently, not just anyone. I happened to pull a definition that read “disbelieve” rather than “does not believe,” and J decided to fly with this. In fact, he tried to fly this to the moon. “Disbelieving,” he asserted, is not at all the same as “not believing” something. I kid you not. This was his response.

Bear in mind that if I knew “disbelieve” would trip him up so badly, I’d have pulled a valid authoritative dictionary from the start that said “does not believe”–because they are out there. But since J had agreed during our call that an atheist is one who does “not believe” a god exists, it did not occur to me he’d now try to claim “does not believe” isn’t valid since this one dictionary I pulled had “disbelieve.” So, back-peddle number one is that he tried to duck out of his initial agreement that it’s fair to label someone who does “not believe” a god exists is an “atheist.”

And here we have a lesson in definitions. And by that I don’t mean that there are not myriad dictionaries that will support than an atheist “does not believe” (if it’s “disbelieve” that is all that is freaking you out) or that there are not myriad dictionaries that assert that “disbelieve” does include “not believe,” but we need to see something here about broad and narrow definitions, in general, and how they must be understood by any fair and honest person:

If I assert that Word-X means “A” and you assert you are using it as “B,” and I say you are wrong to claim it means “B,” and we look it up in 6 dictionaries, and some say “A” and some say “B” and some say “A or B” or “A, B and sometimes C,” then I am wrong even though “A” is not incorrect. I did not assert I use it as “A” and you use it as “B.” I asserted it is incorrect to use it as “B.” And I am wrong. And in our discussion about agnosticism, despite my knowledge that he was abusing the term by using a definition that represents a common misconception, I still agreed to accept it and roll with it. That’s what people do when they are trying to have a fair and honest dialogue to understand what you think and why.

It is possible to find dictionaries to support that “disbelieve” means to reject belief in a way that condemns the claim (in this case, “a god exists”) as false. But to claim that “disbelieve” does not mean “not believe” is to ignore all of the other dictionaries that assert that “not believe” is an acceptable usage of the word disbelieve. It is to tell me I am wrong to use “B”, while “B” is supported by myriad authoritative sources. In order to stop me from rightly using a valid definition, the burden would be on you to demonstrate why those definitions are incorrect and the sources are faulty, or to demonstrate why those definitions might not apply in the context of our particular discussion. In this particular case, however, I even used J’s own dictionary–Merriam Webster–to demonstrate “disbelieving” as “not believing.” And he was still unwilling to to admit the words can validly be said to carry the same meaning.

At this point I could not give the benefit of the doubt–that this was ignorance rather than pride– any longer, so I asserted rather that dishonesty might be involved in some way as a motive. But it would be more true to say the motive for his unwillingness to accept what was in front of him was defensiveness. This, in my book, includes being willing to make ridiculous assertions in the face of rock-solid, contrary evidence, by way of lying to oneself and/or others. I think J was insulted by the “dishonest” comment–but it was that or “stupid,” and of the two, I would think “dishonest” would be the more complimentary. However, admittedly, I might have gone for duplicitous, hypocritical or disingenuous.

Hypocrisy 1:
Eventually J stated that the agnostic does not believe god exists “on the face of it”–and I have no idea what difference it makes. If he does “not believe” a god exists, he is an atheist. If he does “not believe” because he’s uncertain what to believe, because he’s investigated and found it to be unjustified to believe, because he’s drunk and it’s Wednesday–it really doesn’t matter. As long as we can honestly say this person does “not believe” a god exists (and if we agree, as J and I did, he’s no theist, then we can), and as long as we can say that an atheist does “not believe” a god exists (and J agreed to this initially, and a dictionary survey and history would support this), then we cannot deny that this person is an atheist, while he is not a theist.

It no more matters why I don’t believe in god than it matters why I do believe in god. And here is where we get into the sort of hypocrisy that could stir me to righteous indignation if I were to allow it.

Can you imagine how ridiculous and presumptuous it would be, if I went to a theist e-list and began asserting that only theists who believe a god exists because god has personally spoken to them are theists–and that anyone else doesn’t really “believe” and is an “agnostic”? What if I asserted that those at the e-list who believe only because of what they’ve read in their Bibles can’t be labeled “theists”?

Where do I sign up to cherry pick for theists which reasons for “belief” are valid reasons under the theist definition, “someone who believes a god exists”? Would J think that was rational of me, to go and tell theists that if their belief is based on “A,” then it counts, but if they believe for reason “B,” then their belief isn’t really “belief” under the theist definition? The reason they believe is not relevant. All that matters is that they believe. The definition of “theist” doesn’t have an asterisk leading to a note indicating that “if you believe for the following reasons, then ‘theist’ is not what you are.” You can believe for any reason. And a you can not believe for any reason. You still believe or you still disbelieve. And whether you believe or disbelieve is all that matters to these definitions–not “why.”

Hypocrisy 2:
In a context of a particular field, it is possible for definitions to have agreed upon meanings. For example, the term “stripper” in publishing used to mean a person who worked in preparing materials for pre-press. This is very different than what the general population thinks of when they think of “strippers.” And I think we understand this pretty well. In theology, where theists equate “belief” with things like “faith,” we are often confronted with models of the martyrs–those who exhibited such deep conviction to their views that they would suffer and die for
them. Theists make quite a verbal dog and pony show, often becoming offended at any slight to their “deeply held beliefs” or their “god,” in which they believe and whom they “revere.” This “belief” they speak of is important, sometimes life-altering, something they teach their children, something to spread to the far corners of the world, something that brings them great “joy” and “peace” and “happiness.” Theists make it known that “belief” is no small thing. In fact, in the Bible it says that if a person “believes,” they can be saved–receiving eternal bliss with god.

This is how the theist frames theistic “belief.”

Further, during our call with J, Matt said belief was “acceptance of a claim as true,” and J agreed. Later, the e-list exchange, we used a definition of “conviction of the truth of a claim,” and J did not take issue–at first. The definition went along, accepted by both parties for a few exchanges. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, J decided that the sort of “belief” we were discussing, the belief in god that distinguishes a theist, was this sort of “belief”:

Me: “Where is Tammy?”
You: “I’m not sure. I believe she said she was going to the store–but I might have not heard her correctly.”

His point was that you can have varying degrees of belief in god–that not having conviction doesn’t mean not “believing.” So, the agnostic is like this–he is unsure and sort of “believes.”

Beyond back-peddling–literally going back and saying that a definition he accepted twice isn’t working out as well as he’d hoped, so he’s now going to just reject it and claim I’m the one being unfair–there are two huge problems with J’s assertion:

First of all, if this truly is “belief,” then we have a problem with J’s Assertion 1: If I believe a god exists, I’m a theist by definition–using any source you want to pick. And that means that, according to J, this person is no longer an agnostic, because he has belief in god, and, therefore, must be a theist (which J asserted his agnostic is absolutely not). If there can be “little” belief–then his agnostic would be correctly labeled a “theist”–and J must say there is no such thing as an agnostic. He would actually be saying that anyone who has doubts about the existence of gods has some small “belief”–and those who have no doubts and think a god does not exist, are atheists. So, rather than defend his agnostic, he has successfully defined his agnostic right out of existence.

But secondly, and even more pathetically and dishonestly, J is now taking his belief in god (he is a theist) and throwing it under the bus, in order to salvage his sorry position. No longer is “belief” a conviction or accepting a claim as true. No longer does god require deep faith and the courage to live and die by that conviction that He exists and came to save the world from sin. No longer does god demand worship and reverence and commitment. It seems that when the Bible talks about believing and being saved–it only means not being sure god doesn’t exist. If that’s the case, many atheists will be thrilled to learn they’re saved according to the Bible–for they believe. And that’s apparently what theists mean by “belief”–according to J.

Why is this surprising though? Why should it be a shock that when it supports a theist’s argument for how wonderful it is to be a theist, belief is a conviction that can fulfill your life, but the moment you want to say that without that conviction, a person can’t be said to “believe,” then belief becomes nothing more than the thinnest shred of a doubt about the false nature of the any claim? In other words, I should say I “believe” fairies exist, according to J, because I have to admit that, logically speaking, I cannot “know” they do not exist, even though I really, really, really, really doubt they exist, and feel fair saying “I do not believe in fairies.” I still “believe fairies exist” according to J, because I have to acknowledge that it would be logically unsupportable for me to assert that I know they absolutely do not.

And J keeps asking me why this is so hard?

From where J stands, it isn’t possible that he’s twisting in the wind. I sometimes have pity on him because it’s hard to see a person humiliate himself repeatedly on this level; but then he acts like this is a debate or honest disagreement we’re having, rather than me trying to educate an ignorant, defensive individual, and I get my perspective back.

This brings us back to “one OR the other.” If these doubts constitute “belief,” then we have a problem with the definition of atheist, with which J took no issue. J agrees that the atheist is either someone who disbelieves/does not believe a god exists OR someone who believes no god exists (denies a god exists). And here’s the rub: If “disbelieve” means to accept a claim is false, and if “believe” means to be anything but 100 percent sure the claim is false–then what is the difference between “disbelieve/not believe” and “believing no god exists/denying god exists”?

J, who does not claim to take issue with the definition of “atheist” that reads, someone who disbleieves a god exists OR someone who believes no god exists (denies a god exists), is now trying to say that “disbelieving” and “believing the opposite” represent the same condition, thus rendering the “OR,” and the definition of “atheist,” nonsensical. In other words, while he claims to take no issue with the definition, J is actually trying to assert that an atheist is only someone who denies a god exists, and that a person who disbelieves a god exists is actually no different. In my last communication, I asked him what he imagines the dictionary (his Merriam Webster) is trying to demonstrate as the difference between “disbelieve” and “believe the opposite”? I just sent it this morning, so I can’t report on the answer to that head-scratcher.

But I must say that I reject any claim that it is honest to assert that I “believe” fairies exist. I am unable to logically defend that it is impossible for a small race of magical woodland winged creatures to exist. Do I believe fairies exist? If you think it’s reasonable to say I do, I know this guy, J, you really need to meet, because I suspect the two of you will really get along. But I do not expect anyone will ever find a fairy. I do not accept that all the writings about fairies are a compelling reason to think they exists. And if someone presented me with one, I would have to admit I have been “wrong” regarding the existence of fairies. But why? If J is correct, I always believed in them, since I always was willing to admit that I could not be 100 percent certain they do not exist.

Also, J rejected that agnosticism had anything to do with knowledge. And I submitted that theism and atheism addressed belief, not knowledge. And he never took issue with this. Meanwhile, he seems to be saying the atheist has to assert knowledge (certainty), and I don’t see that in the definition. Surely an atheist could feel certain there is no god. But I simply note it is not necessary to be an atheist.

I sent J, several e-mails back, a link to a wonderful series of articles written by Austin Cline, who has been for many years the host of about.com’s Agnosticism/Atheism section. I don’t think J read the articles. That’s too bad. If this is an issue that interests any of you, I encourage you to do some further reading at Cline’s site. Here are a few links you might enjoy:

At his main page is a link to “Atheism 101,” a series that talks about these same misconceptions.

Dictionary Definitions of Atheism”“Definition of Atheism in Reference Books”

h1 = document.getElementById(“title”).getElementsByTagName(“h1”)[0];h1.innerHTML = widont(h1.innerHTML); Here are a few quotes I thought were very appropriate to this discussion:

“Atheists are simply those who do not accept the truth of this claim — they may deny it out right, they may find it too vague or incomprehensible to evaluate properly, they may be waiting to hear support for the claim, or they may simply not have heard about it yet. This is a broad and diverse category and there is no particular counter-claim made by all atheists.”

“Many have trouble comprehending that “not believing X” (not believe gods exist) doesn’t mean the same as “believing not X” (believe gods do not exist). The placement of the negative is key: the first means not having the mental attitude that proposition X (gods exist) is true, the second means having the mental attitude that proposition X (gods exist) is false. The difference here is between disbelief and denial: the first is disbelief in the broad or narrow sense whereas the second is denial.”
“A belief is the mental attitude that some proposition is true. For every given proposition, every person either has or lacks the mental attitude that it is true — there is no middle ground between the presence of absence of a belief. In the case of gods, everyone either has a belief that at least one god of some sort exists or they lack any such belief.”


“A person who is an agnostic, who does not claim to know for sure if any gods exist, still either has some sort of belief in the existence of some sort of god (believing without knowing for sure is common in many subjects) or lacks a belief in the existence of any gods (not believing without knowing for sure may be more common). Confusing the definitions of atheism and agnosticism is a popular tactic with some religious theists because it allows them to essentially define the territory of debate in their favor. They should not, however, be permitted to misdefine and misrepresent basic categories in this manner.”
I still am stunned at the presumptuousness of a theist calling an atheist public outreach program to argue with the hosts about what an atheist is, writing to an atheist educational foundation to assert they don’t understand the definition of agnostic or atheist, and potentially going to Austin Cline’s section to say that a person who has dealt in atheist issues for longer than I’ve been an atheist (and who has extensively handled this question particularly) doesn’t have a clue about atheism. I would never dream of contacting the Baptist Convention to say they don’t know the first thing about what a Baptist is. In fact, if I did get into a discussion with the president of a Baptist educational foundation (as J disputed with Matt D as well), and he told me that I misunderstood some aspect of what it means to be “Baptist,” and dictionaries and reference sources largely supported his assertions–why wouldn’t I back down and own up to my misconception? Austin Cline has a thought on that in one of his Atheism 101 articles:

“Another reason for insisting that only the narrow sense of atheism is relevant is that it allows the theist to avoid shouldering the principle burden of proof. You see, if atheism is simply the absence of a belief in any gods, then the principle burden of proof lies solely with the theist. If the theist cannot demonstrate that their belief is reasonable and justified, then atheism is automatically credible and rational. When a person is unable to do this, it can be easier to claim that others are in the same boat than to admit one’s own failure.”

I think this pretty well nails it.