On changing minds

In a previous thread, someone wrote: “While debating with a theist can be as invigorating as playing chess, one should bear in mind that it’s doing them harm. It’s driving them deeper into their psychosis.”

This is simply not true, and yet it’s unfortunately a very common meme among the “Don’t be a dick” crowd. As a counterpoint, I’d like to share a letter we received a few months ago. I don’t post stuff like this often, as it would come across as too self-congratulatory, but I do want to remind everyone that people sometimes change their minds.


For context: This guy originally wrote to us in January. He wrote that seeing the show was causing serious doubts in his own Christian beliefs. He then went on to say:

I was wondering, if there is no higher power, how you would justify morality in an atheist at all? Please don’t misunderstand, as a young person on the verge of apostasy, I’m not saying that atheists have no morals, although I have met ‘christians’ who have claimed as much. After all, if there is no higher power, then there is no objective truth, ergo no objective morality, meaning all morality is subjective. If that is the case, then to say that a murderer is immoral is surely a fallacy, as he no doubt acted as his morals saw fit. If morality is subjective, then he is as moral for acting out the murder he saw as moral as you are for not acting out a murder you saw as immoral.



I wrote back and we discussed the morality issue for a while. The angle I took on this was the Euthyphro Dilemma, though I usually don’t refer to it by name. I like to explore the concept that a God-given morality is somehow objective in a way that human consensus-derived morality is not. In the course of three more exchanges between us, and some messages from Tracie thrown in, we discussed slavery; we discussed the story of Jephthah; we talked about what kind of commands God could issue that would be considered by this person to be immoral.

After a while he said that they were hard questions but he still felt like there must be a god. The conversation petered out.

In September I received this:



Hi, Mr. Glasser,


I doubt you remember me, but we had a discussion about religion and so on just under a year ago. I have since become an atheist and I thought I’d drop you an e-mail to thank you. The video I e-mailed about in the first place was the first real faith-shaking material I had come into contact with, and from there I kept investigating my religion scientifically, historically and morally. Obviously, I found it wanting and, as I said earlier, have since renounced it. I thought I’d let you know a few of the final arguments in convincing me that the bible, at least, is wrong, not really in case you hadn’t heard them (I’m sure you have), but rather because, since our discussion must have been frustrating for you, I’d like you to know. One is that the God of the bible forced us into sin, and therefore knowingly and willingly condemned literally billions of people to hell by creating the Eden situation in the first place, for he knew what would happen but did nothing to change it. This is an act of incredible cruelty, and is unjustifiable, giving trouble even to my own father (a minister). That’s a moral argument, I suppose, but also shows a biblical contradiction (if God is all loving and unchanging then this act (among dozens of notable others) should be impossible). The second is the fallibility of the bible. I wonder if you knew that Luke, in his gospel, lists 28 generations between Joseph, Jesus’ father, and David, whereas Matthew gives 41. On top of that, the census Luke wrote about never happened, and the local census upon which it may have been based happened long after Herod’s death.

Those are just a few, but anyway, thanks again for showing me another way of thinking, and it’s thanks in part to you guys and what you’re doing that I am being fascinated and amazed every day by the way that the world works without resorting to the ‘Don’t ask questions, God did it’ train of thought.





So. I have been asked, on a few occasions, whether arguing with people about atheism ever changes people’s minds. My answer is always “Very rarely, and the changes are usually minor but positive.” This is what I would consider a happy exception.

We get email some more

I swear, gang! We don’t make this stuff up! Really.

Subject: i can prove god existthe christan

Hello to all that would take the time to read my email. i just recently became aware of you syndicate talk show and find it belittling how the christian community is betrayed as unlearned individual, having watched a few of your broadcast i can honestly say from the caller in it would be a simply job to disprove the christian faith. having said that i am some somewhat adequately intelligence (not to belittle anyone else) and can adequately debate the issue with you. The topic of the broadcast i view was proving the existence of God and i would like to give my view point on the matter,having said that lets that Yahweh(or as you may call him GOD) out of the equation for a moment as well as all other believed deity and focus simply on the the fact of a higher power(i;ll get back the Yahweh in a moment) but to prove the fact of a higher power i will bring into focus the human conscience.If it is as you state “no god” then i would ask why is all human being born with a conscience?

Having said that let us look at the definition of Conscience { Webster’s definition conscience as a knowledge or sense of right and wrong, with an urge to do right; moral judgment that opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle and that leads to feelings of guilt if one violates such a principle} now lets focus on the fact that by scientific belief that all other animals act simply on instinces, down to the most primitive single celled life form with the exception of the human being. Now let being Yahweh back into the picture if has being proven by modern science that the Torah is the oldest documents of mankind (carbonation). now the Torah also known as the first 5 books of the bible happened to have the book of beginning as it first book(book of genesis) and in that book moses(it author) addresses the human consciousness as the tree of good and evil with well translated back to the original text is self awareness and knowledge and can also be broken down to awareness of god and evil(mind you according to modern day science these writings are only copy of the origins and date back hundreds on thousand of ago giving the same definition) having said all of that is there was no higher power or god overseeing mankind,if we were mere accident or came to be by a cosmic chain of events as most atheist believe the conscience is relevant and one shouldn’t bother with anything beside enjoying them self to the fullest because once your dead it over correct?but if this is not the case and there is a universal law of right and wrong set my god the throuh the consciensness then it makes perfect sense because it is as the bilbes states God standard of moral law given to all human even those who choice not to use it or believe.

p.s
if you fail to agree with this take into consideration that even a child knows when they are doing wrong,and have a natural sense of guilt (condemnation) upon taking part in a unjust act a simply as stealing reference back to the webster definition of conscience. Just my food for though

Good grief. Are people still out there trying to make moral arguments for God? Look, setting aside the usual evolutionary business about how we’re a social species — as are gorillas, elephants, dolphins, et al — and the fact such species develop cooperative behaviors as the obvious survival strategy, and the fact that we explain our behaviors with terms like “conscience” and “right and wrong” because we have the ability to form words to communicate to one another with (for all we know dolphins have a particular chirp for right and another for wrong and a very elaborate one for “Hey, that’s my fish, asswipe!”)…

…it has obviously not occurred to such apologists to consider a painfully obvious point: What need would an all-powerful monotheistic God have for morals?

That’s the whole frackin’ point of Euthyphro. This would be a unique being. It could suffer no consequences for any action it might take. There is no one for it to answer to. And it could have no practical reason to care whether or not any lesser beings it created were moral or not, as it could always create more if they happened to wipe each other out.

Now, I know we always argue that it is homo sapiens‘ innate sense of empathy, not merely the desire for reward and fear of punishment by some authority figure, that explains human morality. Because we evolved as a social species, empathic behaviors are part of our makeup. But an all-powerful God would not have evolved as part of a social species, and therefore would likely not have a sense of empathy. After all, to whom or what would it be directed? The only reason a being so uniquely powerful might have to choose beneficent over malign behaviors would be because it had some good cause to fear the consequences of its actions.

I can certainly see such a God creating a species of worshipers out of a sense of crushing loneliness. But to admit that God can be lonely would be to admit he is imperfect, and needs love and worship. And Christians are all about God’s total and indisputable perfection. Well, if you’re perfect, that pretty much means you’re complete in yourself, and nothing can be added to improve you. So then…morals, love, right, wrong, approval, worship, what have you…what does God really need with any of it?

Ray is preaching my stuff!

I just checked the latest post from Ray Comfort and submitted the following response. I’m doubtful that he’ll post it and I’m very doubtful that we’ll ever have any sort of dialog…but, darn it, I just can’t stop trying. I guess I’m a bit more masochistic than I thought.

For those that don’t want to read Ray’s post, the short version is: the OT and NT gods are the same, righteous, perfect and equally stern in their pure justice. This version has only a single change…I’ve actually provided the link to the wiki, as I can pretty much do whatever I want to do here. :)

Thanks, Ray…for (almost) preaching the very sermon I’ve been preaching for years.

So many Christians (and many non-Christians) dismiss the Old Testament view of God in favor of the cheek-turning compassion of the New Testament version. The mistakenly think that the NT version is better, softer or more kind.

There’s just one tiny area where we disagree (actually, there are several beyond this, but I’m only addressing the comparison)…you think the OT and NT versions are equally good, righteous and perfect. I don’t.

While some non-believers might agree with you, but opt for ‘equally bad’ as the appropriate description, I simply don’t agree. The NT doctrine is far worse.

Your cartoonish oversimplification of the wages of OT sin being “Hell” is not consistent with Jewish tradition and not Biblically supported without anachronistic reinterpretation of the OT. The very understanding of death and what happens after death is rather nebulous in the OT and much more vivid in the NT. This renders the NT version of God far worse than the OT version – because the immoral doctrines of original sin is compounded by the unjust concept of eternal punishment for finite ‘sins’ (though you’ll probably point out that sins against a God are necessarily infinite…that’s just a convenient interpretation that isn’t supported theologically, logically or Biblically).

The idea that it is just to punish people for their thoughts, doubts or disbelief is a perversion of any reasonable concept of justice. The system is further polluted by the claim that it rewards belief, regardless of, or in preference to action.

While you’ll find this sad, possibly offensive and may even refuse to publish it, I have no problem at all asserting that my moral values are superior to those of any character in the Bible, including the various characterizations of God. In fact, I’d argue that the God of the Bible may be one of the least moral characters in that entire collection of ancient writings.

When you sacrifice your humanity, your decency and your rational sense of justice in order to claim that the tyrannical acts of a more powerful being are intrinsically just, appealing to the banality of ‘might makes right’ – you’ve lost the battle.

The Euthyphro dilemma begins to make this point about fiat-morality…but it’s worth extending.

If you’re so impressed with the Sermon on the Mount, I’d be curious to hear your take on my response to it.

“Wanted”: In which I take a dumb summer action flick entirely too seriously

I saw “Wanted” over the weekend, and it was more or less what I was expecting: dumb action movie, neato “Matrix”-like special effects, pretentious effort to hammer home some kind of deep pop-philosophical message. Unfortunately, since this is a relatively new movie, I’m frustrated by my desire to talk about the things that bugged me about it. So here I am, blogging it.

So, this post is going to spoil the movie, a lot. If you haven’t seen it yet, and have the intention to, I would strongly recommend that you just stop reading this post, bookmark it, and come back here to discuss when you are finished.

Ready? Spoilers ahead, stop reading now.

Morgan Freeman leads an elite group of super-assassins called “The Fraternity,” which has been operating for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. Members of the frat are periodically ordered to go kill somebody they never heard of. Most of them have several natural abilities which, for all practical purposes, are magical superpowers. They can slow down time, shoot bullets in such a way as to curve around obstacles, and there are magic hot tubs in the headquarters which can heal all wounds, bruises, and breaks within a matter of hours. And of course, they have the almighty power of Angelina Jolie’s Hotness, which is undoubtedly one of the deadliest forces on the planet.

It is eventually revealed that there is a loom, or a series of looms, which have a mystical hotline to some sort of entity which tells them who to kill. A persistent TCP/IP connection to the gods, if you will, forming a cloth-based internet. The looms weave bits of cloth which, due to imperfection in the threads, contain coded messages in binary form that identify the next target. (We can only assume that the frat has been aware of ASCII for hundreds of years.)

Nobody knows how the powers that be pick the targets; but we are given to understand that they have impeccable judgment about who will soon deserve to die. Angelina Jolie (a.k.a. “Fox”) explains that when she was a kid, a frat assassin failed to kill a target, and that target brutally murdered her father. So trust the loom.

The twist, though… hang on a second…

ONE MORE SPOILER WARNING: If the above description has not already turned you away from the movie, I’m really about to totally reveal major plot details!

The twist is that Morgan Freeman is corrupt and so is the organization. They stopped listening to the loom years ago, and now Freeman picks his own targets to suit profit and convenience motives. Devious! So in the end, the message is “don’t blindly trust authority” — which I approve of.

BUT, even as the plot exposes Morgan Freeman as untrustworthy, it still implies that the magic loom is always right to the end.

Now come on, this is a pretty transparent religious allegory. The loom is the Bible. Morgan Freeman is a fallible priest who reads the Bible and hides the truth from others. You can’t trust human religion, but you sure can trust the messages you hear direct from God. Okay, the analogy is flimsy, and maybe it’s not specifically the Christian religion that is being vindicated. But you know what I’m talking about; lots of people say “I don’t follow organized religion because it’s just man-made. But do believe in God and have a personal relationship” yadda yadda yadda.

Now here’s what I want to know. We’ll take it for granted that we can’t trust Morgan Freeman, because he’s a shifty old bastard anyway. (Although he did play God explicitly, twice.) But even knowing that, what on earth is our justification for trusting the loom? Just because it was right on at least one occasion?

Nobody in the brotherhood seems to know much or care about who the looms are connected to, or the mechanism by which the connection remains secure. What’s to stop Satan, or perhaps Loki, from setting up his own spoofed IP address that leads to a server that he controls? How do we know that the man behind the loom isn’t evil or capricious, or that he doesn’t just possess a wacky sense of humor?

Certainly, like Yahweh, there’s no indication that the God Of The Loom is periodically dropping by to explain himself to each member. So while you can argue that our hero was wrong to trust Morgan Freeman, you can’t really argue that he could have interpreted the message and been confident in the answer. In fact, the only reason he believes the loom is trustworthy at all, is because Fox (Jolie) tells him so by anecdote. Would that be enough evidence for YOU to start killing strangers?

Suppose it’s Loki. Loki isn’t evil, he’s just sort of “chaotic neutral.” No reason he can’t tell the truth sometimes and lie sometimes, just to maximize his amusement.

Or suppose it’s Faust. This characterization of the devil surely wouldn’t hesitate to pull the wool over the eyes of Fox, leveraging the tragedy of her father’s death to make her believe that it was somehow the fault of not killing enough people. Surely it’s right in character for him to say: “Look here. You want to avenge your father? You can have damn near omnipotent powers. Slow down time… kill people more or less with your mind… instant regeneration. All you have to do is sign right here.”

And that, in a nutshell, is a basic problem with believing anything based on faith. It’s not just fallible human translation that’s the problem. Even if you’re The Real God Of The Loom, and think some people need killin’, why on earth would you choose to communicate through a medium that is so abstruse, and obviously begging to be abused? And if you’re a mortal being ordered to kill somebody by a friggin’ loom, what level of extraordinary proof should you require before you actually accept that you’re being asked to do a good thing?

This is the Euthyphro dilemma writ large. You say you’re good because you’re doing what a god wants? Well, how do you know that the god is good?

A few other random observations in closing:

Those magical hot tubs are awesome. They can apparently bring people back from the brink of death most of the time. (Though, mysteriously, some guy dies dramatically right next to a hot tub and nobody thinks to dump him in there.) I think that if the goal of the Frat is to save the world, they would do a LOT more good by simply releasing the hot tub formula to the world and letting everybody benefit from it. I’m just saying, that seems a little more efficient than picking off bad guys one victim at a time. But no… we have to save it for newbies in training who need to recover because people in our organization like to intentionally beat the stuffing out of them.

Final point, memo to self: If 3 million dollars ever mysteriously appears in my bank account, the very first thing I’m going to do is set up a different account, that no one knows about, in a place with an excellent reputation for security, and transfer all the money out immediately. When somebody can put money in your account, they can also take it back. Duh.