Conservapedia to form their own schism

Right now, lots and lots of people are emailing us to make absolutely sure that we’ve heard the exciting news that the geniuses behind Conservapedia want to rewrite the Bible without all the bits that they consider too liberal. To be blunt, it reminds me of trying to rewrite Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds by removing the ones who wet their nests. (And to see opinions I’ve already rendered on Conservapedia, check out this older post at Kazim’s Korner.)

I have to say, when I first saw this at Pharyngula I immediately assumed it was a hoax. Then I saw the actual page on Conservapedia (which at the time of this writing is down, probably flooded by hilarity-seeking atheists). But I still imagined that somebody had punked them. I mean, anyone can edit the site, and their famous objective standards are a bit, hmmmm, what’s the word, nonexistent. So clearly some silly person was seeing what he could slip by the censors.

Then I saw the discussion page. It may or may not be a joke, but enough of the regulars there take it seriously that it looks like it’s taken on a life of its own.

So, okay. A nontrivial number of Conservapedians really think that their Bible should be improved. After all, if you leave the Bible in its current inferior form, then terrible liberals like E. J. Dionne are free to claim that the book actually supports their point of view, which is clearly ridiculous and unthinkable.

Now, you might say that this is an act of tremendous hubris, but I say, really, what’s the big deal? It’s not like it is without precedent, for a group of people to write or rewrite some holy text to suit their convenience, and claim the end result to be unchanging eternal truth. I mean, for starters, we’ve got the original authors of the Bible, unless you accept that they were divinely inspired. Then you’ve got the Council of Nicea, who went through all the books that were candidates for inclusion at the time and decided which ones did and didn’t fit in with their conception of what the Bible should be.

Then you have the big Catholic/Protestant split in the 16th century, which by now has spawned alternate versions of the Bible. You have the Book of Mormon, supposedly dictated by an angel, and you have L. Ron Hubbard who specifically announced his (highly successful) intention to start his own religion.

What I’m saying is that, to borrow a description from the great George Carlin, it’s all bullshit anyway. What difference does it make whether you take a 2000 year old book and claim that it is infallible as written literally, or you retranslate it and claim that the translation is infallible, or you make up some entirely new bullshit and claim THAT’S infallible? It’s all bullshit, and the beauty of this Conservapedia project is how close they come to flatly admitting that it doesn’t matter.

Don’t tell me you take any of this stuff seriously anyway.

Watch found on bat cruise

Sorry for taking up space with this announcement. I mentioned this on the Atheist Experience yesterday, but I know a lot of people skip past the announcements.

Someone left a watch on the boat after the bat cruise ended on Saturday. I have it. If you think it may be yours, email tv@atheist-community.org with a description, and we’ll figure out how to get it back to you.

I’m sure this needn’t be said, but please don’t waste time trying to be funny and pretend the watch is yours when you know it isn’t. Also don’t claim it in the comments on this message, as it is more likely to be noticed via email.

E. J. Dionne report

As promised, I attended a lecture by E. J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist, at a Baptist church tonight. Dionne was there under the auspices of the Texas Freedom Network, promoting his new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right. Here’s what the incredibly gaudy church background looked like.


Everything Else Atheist was also with me, and she might write up her own reactions later.

The lecture was about what I expected, which is to say, promising but ultimately disappointing. Dionne believes that religion has a solid place in public discourse, and it has been shanghai’d by the religious right unfairly. He told a joke in which a Republican asks a Democrat what the Democrat would do if Jesus ran as a Republican. The Democrat replies “Why would Jesus change his affiliation after all these years?”

Dionne was full of praise for the importance of religion in people’s lives, saying that religion grapples with mysteries that science and politics cannot address. (Well yes, in the first place, many of those issues are addressed by science and politics; in the second place, just because religion grapples with them does not mean that it successfully addresses any of them.) He also leveled a great deal of criticism against what he perceives as the unfairly dismissive attitude toward religion by many liberals, saying liberals assume that all religious people are “busybodies obsessed with sex” based on the prevailing opposition to gay marriage and abortion.

Dionne did make a good point about the way that “moral values” tend to be framed in politics. He cited a clearly slanted 2004 exit poll which asked voters what issues most strongly influenced their vote. The options included such things as “moral values,” “education,” “the Iraq war,” etc. Dionne rightly pointed out that if you describe either of the latter two as your most important concerns, then you are implicitly agreeing that moral values are less important to you. In reality, as he then pointed out, if neither education nor war is regarded as a moral concern, then there is something seriously wrong with our thinking. On the other hand, I of course believe that it is a mistake to attempt to unduly equate moral values with religious beliefs.

In the end Dionne suggests that it’s important for Americans on both sides of the political spectrum to embrace their faith and accept it in public life.

There was a Q&A period where people walked up to microphones. Unfortunately I was not very nimble and wound up sixth in line, with answers to the first five questions taking up a good 5-10 minutes or so each. Luckily he still had time to answer my question, but after I went up he asked the remaining people in line to limit themselves to a brief, unanswered comment. I will try to reconstruct my statement/question from memory, and then summarize his response.

“Mr. Dionne, thank you for coming here tonight. My name is Russell Glasser, my father and I are long time fans of your column. I am also a member of the Atheist Community of Austin.” [Dionne jokingly interjected "God bless you" to which I simply replied "Thank you."]

“Speaking as someone from the 15% of voters who do not claim any personal god, I feel that unbelievers are often caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to selecting a political party. I believe that somewhere around 80% of us voted for both Kerry and Obama. [Dionne nodded, indicating he was familiar with this.] Many atheists might be there by default, because frankly the Republican party is full of lunatics. I personally know only one atheist Republican, while most atheists who lean conservative gravitate toward the libertarian party.

“I think the reason separation of church and state is so important is not simply because it panders to people like me, but because religion is a deeply personal issue to many people. When political figures interject a religion into the dialogue, they are implicitly excluding other religions. As you pointed out, the religious right say that religious values are focused around gay marriage and abortion, which is different from the beliefs of many of the people in this church now.

“What I’m wondering is: Aren’t you concerned that by encouraging politicians on the left to use more religious language, you are buying in to the notion that this sort of exclusion has a place in politics? It seems to me that even this much is conceding too much to the right regarding their perspective about the appropriate role of religion?”

I got a smattering of applause for this remark. Dionne answered that he understands my concerns, and mentions that he always says to believers that they ought to seek out conversations with atheists, because they should be prepared to defend their beliefs. Not quite the answer I was looking for, since I am more interested in wanting to engage with atheists at least partly out of recognition that there is no need to believe in God as a prerequisite to work towards shared social goals.

He then went on to say that it is possible to talk about religion without being disrespectful to nonbelievers, and it is important to do so. Finally, he added encouragingly that he would bet atheists are probably under reported by polling, since fewer people will admit to it.

After talk I saw a few familiar faces. Dr. James Dee popped up in the last set of people interjecting comments and made a comment about needing to read the Bible in the original languages. A regular commenter on this blog came up to me in the lobby and introduced himself, adding that he’ll be joining us on the bat cruise this weekend.

In conclusion, I understand what Dionne is trying to do, but I still come away deeply unconvinced by the argument that the solution to religion in politics is more religion in politics. While I agree that it would be a mistake to ignore the role of religion in history, I see no compelling reason to believe that religion is a necessary or sufficient motivator to bring about positive changes. To give credit to God for human achievements is, in my opinion, an insult to human spirit. And considering the potential that religion always has to divide people, I really feel like Democrats should be especially wary of trying to use it for short term gain.

Atheist factions

Yesterday on the Non-Prophets episode 8.16, Matt posed the question: do people perceive a schism forming in the skeptical community? Is there a concerted effort to distance the general skeptical movement from atheists?

You can listen to this discussion somewhere around the last fifteen minutes of the show. After you do, we’d like your feedback.

TFN Political event alert

I’m planning to attend this event hosted by the Texas Freedom Network.

From my inbox:


Could the religious right really be on the decline in America?

Come hear E.J. Dionne, the award-winning columnist for The Washington Post and author of the best-selling book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right, at a Faith and Freedom Speaker Series event on September 24 in Austin. Dionne is one of the nation’s most respected voices on the intersection of faith and politics in America today.

As a liberal, I enjoy EJ Dionne’s column in the Washington Post and appreciate any opportunity to tweak the religious right. On the other hand, as an atheist I have serious misgivings about any efforts by the left to “reclaim” faith and politics. I am not particularly concerned by candidates who mention their own religious beliefs as a personal matter — frankly I appreciate the opportunity to find out who to be wary of — but I think religion has no place ever being an explicit part of politics.

In any case, I’m certainly interested in going to see what Dionne has to say, perhaps armed with a few pointed questions at the end. If anyone wants to join me, click on the link at the top. It is free to the public, but you are advised to reserve your spot as seating will be limited.

We get YouTubes (Historicity of Jesus part 2)

As mentioned in the previous post, this is the video posted by Aaronk1994.

A little after the one minute mark, Aaron accused Jen of misrepresenting the argument that she was trying to address. Jen said: “The claim is the Jesus must have been divine because his disciples wouldn’t have died for something that they knew was a lie. So they must have known that he was the son of God, and was resurrected.” Aaron calls this a straw man, claiming that no apologist would say such a thing. Then he goes on to rephrase almost precisely the same argument.

The point, Aaron says, is that “because they died for it, that proves beyond any reasonable doubt that they really believed it. Which, then, you have to explain the origin of the belief in the resurrection.” And of course, Aaron’s explanation is that they were correct. Maybe you can tell the distinction between this and Jen’s “straw man,” but I think it’s beyond splitting hairs and into splitting nanoneedles.

Why does anyone have to explain anyone else’s belief? In the next clip, Jen points out, correctly, that the 9/11 hijackers died for their beliefs. As George from NY mentioned when he called, there’s the Heaven’s Gate cult. There’s Jonestown. If you asked me whether those people died because they sincerely believed whatever nonsense their leaders were peddling, I would say “Absolutely yes!” Does that require me to explain that belief? Certainly not. Should the default position in that case be “They believed it because it’s true”? It’s a judgment call, but in that case I would certainly say no.

Aaron dismisses the reference to the hijackers by using the magic words “straw man” again, and describes it as “another stupid analogy.” He explains that the difference between a disciple of Jesus and a 9/11 hijacker is that the disciples were eye witnesses to the events of their religion, while the hijackers were not.

Which, of course, is the whole problem. We have no way of knowing that, and no amount of eye-rolling, sarcastic inflection, or dismissal of the opposing claims as “ridiculous” is going to fill that knowledge gap. As I was saying in my previous post, whether or not you accept that a guy named Jesus existed doesn’t say anything about whether the rest of the stories in the Bible were true. If the stories about Jesus’ miracles were embellished after the fact, the martyrs who died wouldn’t have been dying for “a lie,” they would be dying for some holy cause that they believed to be true because they had been told that it was without requiring strong evidence for it.

Yes, just like Muslim suicide bombers. Just like Jonestown cultists. Just like Japanese kamikaze pilots who believed that Hirohito was a god. You simply can’t make any claims about what they supposedly knew to be true without providing solid evidence for the specific part of the Bible that says that Dead Jesus showed up before the apostles. And folks, a brief mention in passing by a historian reporting secondhand information eighty years later is simply not going to do that, any more than a story told by a Greek poet will establish that there is an island where men get turned into pigs.

When Aaron actually called into the show, starting at around the nine minute mark of this clip, he took issue with Matt’s point that Tacitus was not a contemporary of Jesus. Aaron challenged: “Contemporary evidence is not a requirement. You don’t have to have a contemporary source. If you’d like to claim that, then could you please cite me a historian who specifically says that you need contemporary evidence?”

Aaron goes on to say, back in his framing video, that Matt had said earlier that contemporary evidence is the ONLY kind that can establish a claim. Then he accuses Matt of being hypocritical.

There’s a problem with Aaron’s understanding of historical standards here, and it goes way beyond what historians say. It really comes down to what people regard as proof of something. Yeah, it’s true. Not everything in history needs to be verified by a contemporary source. There is a lot of secondhand information that is regarded as solid. But not uncritically. Once again, there’s a huge difference between the kind of evidence it requires to insert Julius Caesar into the history books, and the kind it requires to insert “Julius Caesar was a God” into the history books. There’s a difference between saying that Jeff Dowd is “The Dude,” and saying that Jeff Dowd foiled a kidnapping plan orchestrated by a fake millionaire poseur. One is fact, and the other is embellishment.

Aaron tries to gloss over this detail by quickly blurting out that you certainly don’t need a contemporary source to prove that something as commonplace as a crucifixion took place. Haw haw! How silly anyone must be to suggest that! But come on, be serious here. Aaron, like other apologists, wants to use the text of the Bible to prove a thoroughly unprecedented, unique, and unbacked-up claim like the resurrection. He wants to prove that this Jesus chap rose from his grave.

And in this case, I’m sorry, it’s going to take more than a few passing remarks to prove that. If I told you, right now, today, that I saw a guy rise from the dead, I don’t think you would believe me. And that’s not even getting into the fact of whether I’m a primary source or whether I’m contemporary with the event. I suspect that even Aaron would balk at the suggestion that he should accept this claim on my say-so, and would want to hear more information before accepting this as true.

The fact that it didn’t get written down until 70 AD is, in actuality, the least of the problems with this claim. And to say that the written word in the book is in any way proof that it happened, or that historians reporting several decades later about what Christians claimed of their savior provide independent corroboration of an event they never saw… yeah, that’s gonna be good enough for the modern history books.

Just ask Julius Caesar, the god.

We get YouTubes (Historicity of Jesus part 1)

On the show two weeks ago, Matt and Jen got a call from aaronk1994, a 15 year old YouTube apologist. Aaron called in within the last few minutes, so the argument didn’t have time to get up to speed.

That week, a viewer sent email mentioning that Aaron might call back during the week I (Russell) was hosting, and suggested that we should be ready to take a call with some serious argument about the historicity of Jesus.

Aaron did not call back, but he did make a rather sarcasm-laced video declaring victory over Matt and Jen. I’ll link that video in my next post, after I’ve said a few general words about the historicity debate.

Let me come clean about this: I am not much of a Christian history buff. Matt, being an ex-Christian almost-minister, has always been fascinated with the Bible and with the various details of the Christian religion. As a lifelong atheist Jew, I couldn’t care much less. To the extent that I’m interested in Christianity at all, it’s the social implications that gets me reading. The Bible is not my area of geekitude, as I lean more towards formal logic and philosophy of science. Hence I was somewhat interested in talking to Aaron from that perspective, but since he didn’t call, I’ll just content myself with going over the video response for a bit.

I’ll just say straight off that I think the question of whether a guy named “Jesus” really lived in ancient Rome is missing the point. There may or may not have been such a guy. The Jesus of the Bible may have been based on him. Many atheists like to argue that there’s strong reason to believe that Jesus was an amalgamation of already existing gods.

But this is an argumentative red herring because the question we are really interested in is not “Did someone named Jesus exist?” but “What do we know about this purported real Jesus?” As well as: “To what extent can we trust the Bible as an accurate account of events that happened?”

To see why it’s a red herring, consider a couple of examples from the world of entertainment. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, from the movie The Big Lebowski, is a real person. Sort of. He’s based on real life slacker Jeff Dowd. But did Jeff Dowd get attacked by nihilists, foil a phony kidnapping, harass a pornographer in his penthouse, and get covered in a dead friend’s ashes? Probably not.

Cosmo Kramer, of “Seinfeld” fame, is a real person. Sort of. He’s based on Kenny Kramer, the real life wacky neighbor of producer Larry David. But did Kenny Kramer coach a Miss America contestant, found Kramerica Industries, invent the mansiere, and spend a year in jail for failure to prevent a mugging? I don’t have inside knowledge of this, but I assume the answer to all these is no.

I hope this illuminates why “Did Jesus exist?” is kind of the wrong question. The real question is, “Was Jesus a real person who also walked on water, fed a large crowd with only a small bit of food, healed the blind, cursed a fig tree, and rose from the dead?”

In logic puzzles, sometimes you are confronted with determining whether you are talking to the sort of person who either always tells the truth, or always lies. Too often, the question of the Bible’s accuracy is treated as this kind of question — are the factual questions 100% true, or 100% false? Notice how apologists often make arguments like — I swear this is a real argument — “Historians did not believe that such-and-such a place in the Bible was real, but then archaeologists found the remains! The Bible is proven true once again!”

Clearly that’s definitive proof that not every single sentence of the Bible is false. But we don’t live on an imaginary island contrived for the purpose of framing logic puzzles. In the real world, different bits of information have to be evaluated individually, and some statements may be true while others are false within the same document, often even within the same sentence. To state otherwise is tantamount to saying that The Big Lebowski is 100% accurate because it takes place in Los Angeles, which is a real city.

Jesus Christ certainly isn’t the first (possibly) real person who had divine powers attributed to him. The life of Julius Caesar is pretty well documented, but historians stop well short of accepting the common claim of his time that Caesar was a god in human form. It’s no problem at all for historians to take some claims as true and others as false.

Likewise, Homer’s Iliad describes an event — the Trojan War — which may well have been real. But it also describes the Greek gods like Zeus and Athena stomping around influencing the outcome. Again, just because some basic historical details are true, doesn’t mean that the work as a whole isn’t mostly false.

In the next post I will go over the video.

On keeping your cool

An email friend, whom I’ll call “Carl,” (he can identify himself in the comments if he feels like it) sent me a message with the subject “Could you help?” It contained a few letters exchanged with a pastor named Jesse. It seems that some of Carl’s well-meaning friends don’t care for his atheism, and therefore sent Jesse after him to change his mind.

I won’t quote the entire exchange. Carl started off well but then after a couple of rounds said this:

Jesse, anyone that believes in any “Man Made” religion is not only superstitious, but harmful to society and has a serious moral dilemma to deal with. All religions are hurtful to the progress of all science and mankind in general, the sooner people learn this and think for themselves the better off everyone will be.

It’s a shame what you do for a living really. Taking advantage of innocent people with lies and false promises of eternal punishment and damnation if they fail to believe as you do.

Are you truly happy in your chosen line of work? I don’t know how you sleep at night knowing that you preying on people’s insecurities and lack of knowledge.

Jesse got extremely huffy and basically accused Carl of being an intellectual lightweight, concluding:

Unfortunately, further discussions will take viable witnessing time away from those who are seeking our Savior rather than those who have clearly rejected Him after 25 years of holding the title “Christian”.

Again, that the burden of proof that God does not exist falls solely on you.

Carl came away from this exchange feeling annoyed and wondering how he could have gotten across to the Christian about how burden of proof works. I have a lot more thoughts about the way this conversation went though, so here’s what I wrote back.

I hate to say it, but in a small way I agree with Jesse. It was kind of rude of you come at him with a personal attack, accusing him of taking advantage of people and deliberately lying. It may have been cathartic for you to be able to tell him what you really feel, but it’s no way to start a mutually respectful debate where he might be willing to listen to your opinions.

It sounds to me as if he contacted you unsolicited, but I imagine that you WANT something from this guy. If all you wanted was to be left alone, then hey — mission accomplished. He just essentially told you that he’s moving on to fresher targets, and shan’t pester you again. Great! But the fact that you wrote to me indicates that you are bothered by this response and wish the exchange had gone differently.

What do you want out of the discussion? I can’t answer that. Do you want to justify yourself to the pastor? Do you want to beat him soundly and then show whichever friend sicced him on you that he has no leg to stand on? Or do you just want to have a practice discussion so that you can hone your own arguments?

Whichever one it is, keep this in mind: People are more inclined to give you what you want if you’re not mean to them. On the internet, conversations only happen between two consenting parties. You have the right not to talk to him, and he has the right not to talk to you. Be honest: if somebody tried to open a dialogue with you by saying “You’re an atheist? I despise you and everything you stand for, and think you are luring innocent people to hell every day.” Would you want to continue a discussion with this person, or would you tell them to take a hike?

I’m in that situation all the time, receiving email directed at the TV show, and I’ll tell you what I do with those kinds of messages. Either I ignore them intentionally, or I keep them on the line for a few rounds just to return their scorn and abuse with even higher levels of sarcasm and mockery. Just for fun. Eventually I drop it.

So I don’t blame Jesse for answering an attack with an attack. If I were you, I think at this point I’d either apologize if I wanted to keep talking, or drop the subject and learn a lesson for the next conversation.

When I say “apologize” I of course don’t mean you have any need to apologize for not believing in God. As atheists, we already come into this dialogue at a disadvantage, because (1) Christianity is popular, so we’re defending a minority position, and (2) Christians are told that atheists are immoral, so they already assume that they are descending into a pit of vipers by even talking to you. So basically, they are looking for any hint of bad behavior as an excuse to dismiss you entirely. If you don’t want them to have that excuse, then don’t give them an opportunity by deliberately insulting them.

As for the burden of proof: What we generally say is that the person who is making a positive claim is the one who has a burden of proof. Or to put it another way, if you want to convince somebody of something then you should be prepared to prove it.

This means that if the other guy is making the claim “There is definitely a God” and you are simply saying “I don’t believe you have enough evidence for that” then yeah, he has to bring his proof or scram. But if you come at HIM and say “There is absolutely no God, and you are LYING to people!” then you’ve actively managed to transfer that burden to yourself.

My final point would be that even if he says things that are not true, he is probably not lying. “Lying” implies that he has an awareness of a truth that negates his claims. It implies that not only is he wrong, but he knows he’s wrong. I don’t see how you can assume that that’s the case. If you had simply accused him of being incorrect, it might defuse a lot of that messy interpersonal stuff.

I wanted to share this because I think it’s important that atheists learn how to communicate effectively. When I discuss evangelical atheism, I try to emphasize that every exchange you get into should have a clear goal. If at any time you do not know how to answer the question “Why am I still writing to this guy?” then you should stop writing. Goals can include:

  1. Convincing the other person.
  2. Convincing an audience.
  3. Entertaining an audience (if the opponent is too big a crackpot to be taken seriously).
  4. Practice.

That’s part of the reason why if a theist who is a stranger writes to the TV list, my first instinct is to redirect it to a blog post or other venue where more people are listening. If there’s little chance that either of us will be persuaded, there’s not much point to arguing unless there’s someone else paying attention. If it’s a friend whose opinions I care about, I might have the discussion just out of a desire to be social or maybe try to soften their position.

Teh emailz, we gets dem

Ordinarily I don’t post the full names of emailers. However, in this case, John Berbatis from Perth seems to be busy enough posting his own name everywhere that he probably won’t mind.

Dear Producer,

The following references will provide positve information to what I have stated below; ‘The Holographic Universe – it’s an illusion’ (You Tube), ‘Biege the Colour of the Universe’ (abc.net.au/science/news/stories*) and Scientific America (August, 2003).

Kind regards
John Berbatis 10th August, 2009

Logical proof of Monotheism & Pantheism.

Syllogisms that I submitted in 1998, which were recognized by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Dr Mary Robinson and the Hon. Justice Michael D. Kirby AC CMG of the High Court of Australia.

Time must exist before matter can be created, and only an animate entity can conceive of space-time. Time must be a stabilized and uniform condition before matter can form, thus Monotheism is a Truth.

The Universe consists of space-time; which is functionally active and growing but remains stable. These combined characteristics are indicative of an animate entity only, thus Pantheism is a fact.
As a consequence, all mortals’ behaviour and attitudes become conspicuous by our Creator.

Reality is the dream of a Universal sentient being. Sensations of all mortals are merely light flashes within elongated fractal crystals, flowing in a white mist which is time itself; ensconced within a beige coloured and velvet textured Pearl, that is, a holographic Universe.

If all electrical particles were in different time zones – matter would not form, thus time is a controlled electromagnetic radiation (energy) E = mc2.

To be perfect – one must know the past, present and future, there is only one, the one that created Time.

John Berbatis Perth, Australia
[phone number and email address removed, since I'm not completely heartless]

Wow, that certainly was… a bunch of sentences. Which appeared to be written in English. Or something resembling it.

By the way, when I googled this guy, I also discovered that he predicted multiple times that humanity would go extinct last year. Crikey, John, those are some bloody spooky powers you have there! I think this is why most prophets predict major events occurring a lot more than a year in advance.

* The URL provided is broken, but this story might explain some of what he is talking about with regard to the color beige.

Open thread on Thunderf00t vs. Ray Comfort

A lot of people are emailing us to let us know that the big debate is up on YouTube. Here’s part one, and you can follow up on the rest yourself.

I’m opening it up to comments because I know you’re all dying to discuss their respective performances. I will probably contribute my own impressions later. I do have some, but I don’t want this post to be simply “Russell’s opinion of the debate.”