Open thread on episode #695

Today’s show was, as usual, fraught with difficulties, though not as many as we originally suspected. Once again, the calls were problematic, with some callers having a hard time hearing us. Whether the problem is with our audio, their cell phones, or a combination of everything, is unclear. But we’re well aware of ChannelAustin’s long history of audio problems. Not only that, we dropped the damn UStream feed in the last ten minutes, but the full video should be fine.

It turns out that the first call today, with Mark from Austin Stone Church, may not have been a problem on our end after all. Russell and I thought we just lost the call, which happens. After the program, Frank and John in the control room told me that Mark’s feed was just fine. Only after we’d brought up problems with Matt Slick’s TAG, Mark apparently stopped talking, then hung up.

If that’s the case, it can’t have been Mark’s proudest moment. According to him, he had the whole congregation watching (awesome!), and, if he indeed hung up, they watched him basically wither in his defense of the faith without much of a fight. Still, we’d have put him at the head of the line had he called back. Better luck next time, Mark.

Note to self: When Christians call the program and immediately demand politeness from us, they are probably about to launch into a string of absurdities and falsehoods that they don’t want us to call them on. Frankly, the minute Mark listed the risible Ray Comfort as some authority on evolution, and repeated the tiresome canard that there are “no transitional fossils,” I was done with politeness. No, I’m not going to scream nasty names at you while I correct you. But the fact is, with the plethora of scientific literature and research out there demonstrating to as high a degree of certainty as science can promise that evolution is real, there is no excuse for willful ignorance and the deliberate dissemination of disinformation about what science actually says. Frankly, the creationist line that there are no transitional fossils is on the same level of intellectual irresponsibility as flat Earth belief.

This is an aspect of religious fundamentalist dishonesty I think deserves zero tolerance, and there’s been way too much coddling and misplaced “fairness” towards a “controversy” that does not actually exist. If you’ve only read Ray Comfort and not any actual scientific text, and you want to call us and challenge us on evolution, know this: it will not be a pleasant experience for you. You are simply not in possession of the facts, and we will steamroll you with them.

Also, since the gang at Stone Church seem to think Matt Slick is impressive somehow, let me share with you an email we got from a viewer today, who passed along a question from Slick.

How can an atheist trust his own judgments if his brain is completely restricted to the neurochemical laws and cannot operate outside of those laws? Doesn’t this necessitate that all the laws/chemical reactions/brain arrangement require certain reactions based upon the stimulus that produces a specific and predictable result due to that person’s particular neurochemical arrangement in his brain? How then can such a person trust that his conclusions about the universe be accurate since what he believes and interprets is governed by those laws? How does such required neurochemical reactions produced truth and proper logical inference? If the atheists cannot answer this, then it, demonstrates his worldview has serious problems.

Jeff Dee caught this grenade and lobbed it right back.

How can a theist trust his own judgments if his mind is completely unconstrained by any rules? Doesn’t this necessitate that all of his thoughts are random disconnected nonsense? How then can such a person trust that his conclusions about the universe are accurate, since what he believes and interprets is NOT governed by any laws? How does such unconstrained rambling produce truth and proper logical inference? If the theist cannot answer this, then it demonstrates his worldview has serious problems.

So I’d suggest apologists start looking for another hero. Matt Slick isn’t as slick as he thinks.

Answering the right questions…

Reposted from my Facebook notes, by request:

“What proof and evidence can you provide that atheism is accurate and correct?”

Atheism is not a world view or a philosophy, it does not assert claims that could be viewed as accurate and correct – it is the rejection of theistic claims. It is disbelief of the claim “some god exists” – there is no requirement that one believe that no gods exist in order to be an atheist.

The question, as phrased, represents a misunderstanding of both atheism and the burden of proof. It’s an attempt to frame atheism as if it is asserting that no gods exist and it does so in order to shift the burden of proof. It’s not only hand waving…there’s a big, rotten, fallacy-ridden, red herring in that hand. Why phrase the question that way? Because, to those who don’t understand the burden of proof or the subjects at hand, it sounds so much more clever than “can you prove that there are no gods?”

In my case, I reject theistic claims because they have not met their burden of proof. That’s it. I’m an atheist because no one has been able to provide sufficient evidence to support their theistic claims. They’ve failed to answer a question similar to the one they aim at me…and after being called on that failure they’re desperately trying to point the finger in any direction except where it belongs.

If you believe you can read minds, why would you ask a non-believer if they can provide proof and evidence that you can’t — instead of simply demonstrating the truth of your claims? The simple answer is that you can’t, and you know you can’t.

Consider the following:

I get e-mails from Christians on a regular basis. Many of them are convinced that the Holy Spirit has instructed them to contact me and give me valuable evidence that will change my mind. These people believe that their god is real, that he wants me to know that he’s real and that he’s charged them with providing me with the evidence.

We can, via reductio ad absurdum, demonstrate that these people are simply wrong:

If their god exists, then it knows precisely what information they’ll need to convey to convince me and it would communicate this information to a person who is capable of accurately presenting it in a way that achieves the stated goal. (I’m not going to draw out a syllogism for this…it’s all from the definition of the god that they believe is real.)

Why then do these people consistently present the most obviously flawed arguments and absurd anecdotal evidence? Why then do these people often say the very thing that confirms that they have no clue what they’re talking about?

Are they just inept at communicating the needed information? Then their god has made a terribly stupid mistake, inconsistent with the character of the god they believe in.

Is their god incapable of accurate communication? Not according to their beliefs. Their god is perfectly (or nearly) wise, intelligent, capable, powerful, etc…and clearly directed them to present the information.

No matter how you break this down, the god they believe in simply doesn’t exist. There may be a god, and it might even be the one that they’re trying to represent, but they’re clearly wrong about its desire and ability to demonstrate its existence. At best we’re left with something that is, to a third party, indistinguishable from delusion.

Is there something that you’re really good at or knowledgeable about? Perhaps you’re a bit of an expert at a game, or at repairing cars, or you’re a trivia wiz about a certain show. Perhaps you’re highly educated in a particular scientific discipline or you’ve been doing a particular job for many years.

If so, then you’ll have some idea of how easy it is, in many cases, to determine (roughly) how skilled someone else is in that same area. You probably also have some sense of the extreme frustration you feel when someone who clearly has no clue what they’re talking about is trying to “educate” someone else. It’s almost as frustrating as when they’re trying to “educate” you. You can spot the bullshit from a mile away and it’s almost physically painful to watch someone get away with poisoning another mind with nonsense.

That’s what I feel like when I read many of these e-mails. That’s what I feel like when I see apologists videos or blogs.

I’ll continue to take on all callers, including (especially?) the overly-glib bullshit artists who willingly lie to promote their beliefs…because it’s something that I find important and something that I’m pretty good at.

The phone lines are open.

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.

How to Stack a Deck

Last night I watched three episodes of a program called “Paranormal State.” It is billed as “true stories of a team of paranormal researches from the Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society.”

One episode was of the variety I find most disturbing. It involved a young autistic boy. I won’t examine that particular episode, but I’d like to offer the following:

Note to wack-a-loons: If you live your life in a state of paranoid freakout because you believe paranormal entities are trying to “get” you, don’t infect your kids with that fear. It’s not just a disservice, it’s mentally abusive to turn them into frightened little people who jump at shadows and every creak of an old home. If you’re truly that far out of touch with reality, do yourself a favor and buy new, because every pre-owned home or commercial building is going to come with some creaks and groans. A talk with a structural engineer, instead of a psychic, might do more good for you that you can imagine (even with your extreme level of fertile imagination). Freak yourself out till the ghosts come home, but don’t burden your kids with your personal, dysfunctional, mental baggage. I get that you “believe” it; that doesn’t make it sane.

In one of the episodes, I recall a woman was sleeping at her sister’s “haunted” house. She was in the haunted bedroom and felt a “presence” come out of the closet, approach the bed, and put pressure on her chest. She also heard toys moving in the closet.

Two words: Sleep Paralysis. It’s a condition, caused by a known malfunction of chemicals in the brain that are normally used to help regulate sleep and waking. It can cause, not surprisingly, feelings of a person/people in the room, auditory and visual hallucinations, and feelings of pressure on the chest, along with fear. It’s a common event, but it is not unheard of for an individual to have episodes only rarely. I have had episodes. And before I learned what it was I just called it that “thing where you can’t wake up.” The majority of the people I’ve mentioned it to respond with “Oh yeah, I think I’ve had that.” I’m guessing that this particular woman probably had her first episode (or first memorable episode) in this house, and due to the stories she’d heard, misattributed the incident to ghosts.

It was the final program, though, that really left me slack-jawed.

It was a historic Gettysburg home in a state of disrepair when it was purchased by a couple who intended to use it as a bed and breakfast. They put a lot of money into renovations, but didn’t really provide a detailed run down of what work had been done—what had been replaced, updated or renovated, and what parts of the home were still original. This information, I thought, should be significant if I’m investigating possible causes of unexplained noises in a home. Gettysburg, in case anyone isn’t familiar, was the scene of a lot of historic bloody battles and death. So, no surprise there are local tales of hauntings. And no surprise that the “psychic” who was brought in felt pain in his gut, saw blood and death, and believed someone there might have suffered a gunshot wound. Impressed?

Other than the minor creaks and cricks that any older home would produce, there were two really great clues that went negligently uninvestigated, which might have resulted in some solid answers and helped these homeowners out significantly. (Or, if they were investigated, the show failed to demonstrate it or mention it.)

First of all, this house presented the paranormal team with a tremendous opportunity to figure out what was happening—whether ghost or not. That opportunity was blown, blown, and blown again. But here’s what happened: Every morning at 3:02 a.m., on the money, the entire house “shudders.” This was caught on both video and audio. The concierge was the one who pinpointed the consistency of the event, and sure enough, 3:02 a.m.: brrruuumpty-bumpity-brump went rolling through the rooms.

Let’s be real here for a moment: It takes a bit of force to shake a house. If the supernatural manifested consistently (every night at 3:02 a.m.) with enough force to shake a house, it wouldn’t be so commonly considered as being in the realm of mental instability. That house shook in reality, not in somebody’s mind. But the type of force that shakes a house should be identifiable and measurable and, with an opportunity to observe it with nightly regularity, shouldn’t be any mystery. If your house shakes at the same time every night, that’s not a job for an exorcist, it’s a job for a structural engineer—the kind that inspects homes and can work with the city to figure out what’s happening with your house and your area that could cause such an event.

My first recollection was of being in a house when an aircraft flew overhead and created a sonic boom. It was extremely similar. Someone else I mentioned it to asked me if there were any trains that ran nearby? I have no idea, because that wasn’t investigated (or, again, if it was, it wasn’t presented).

Is there a train track nearby? An Airforce base? Any city pipes or lines under the street? Do the neighbors feel this tremor as well? Did anyone think to ask them? If they do, we know we’re not looking for a house ghost but something area wide that is impacting the neighborhood at large. If not, do they have the same sort of historic foundations and structural issues a restored historic building would have, or are they rebuilt as entirely new?

This house is a “historic” home—which means that there are restrictions on the types of upgrades and renovations the owners can apply to the home, unlike other structures in the neighborhood that may not be labeled “historic.” This house shudder is a consistent event that lends itself perfectly to easy and accurate identification. But if this team called the city or checked area municipal facilities, talked to a single neighbor or called an engineer to do an evaluation (which isn’t very expensive), they never showed it. And so it’s fair to say that it appears they’re completely negligent when it comes to investigating the most simple and obvious sources of things that can, and do, impact houses in the way these owners described.

If a ghost is the cause of this house shaking, and it shakes every night at 3:02 a.m. on the dot, that would be the single most credible and easy-to-confirm ghost event ever identified. It’s open to investigation by anyone, because it’s an undeniable, predictable, measurable manifestation. The first step, though, would be to actually do the leg work and hire the necessary credentialed professionals, outside the psychic community, to demonstrate the event defies natural explanation. I can’t express enough how disappointing it was that they bailed on even trying to find a mundane cause of this event before calling in the paranormal “experts.”

But the next event was just as much of a blown opportunity. The house “moans.” I’m not talking about a moan that can only be heard by audio taping in an empty room and then torturing the feedback on some machine that does nothing but distort the results until you get something akin to a moan. I find it interesting that in these voice recordings made in shows like this, the moment the “researchers” find any sound whatsoever, they go immediately to work on manipulating the ever-loving-heck out of the indiscernible noise until they get the result they want. Then they stop distorting the sound. It would appear that the sound they actually recorded isn’t what it was supposed to be. And all the variants that weren’t something that sounded like a voice saying whatever they wanted to hear, aren’t “right” either. The only “right” result, it seems, is when they get it mastered exactly to a point where, if the listener turns their head to just the right angle and strains sufficiently, it says
“get out” or “I am here” or some other such ghost movie dialogue. That’s how such sounds are “meant” to be perceived, and paranormal researchers know this because that’s precisely the sort of result they’re seeking.

So, they actually get three pretty solid “moans” on their audio/video tape. Impressive. Not just impressive, though, also somehow familiar. Familiar, as in I’ve-hear-this-sound-before familiar. My house makes this same sound. It happens whenever I forget to shut off the outside water, and then use water in the master bathroom. It’s a “sign” alright. It’s a sign I need to go back outside and shut off the outside water valve. What’s even funnier is that my house isn’t the only structure that makes this noise. At work, our office building makes the exact same “moan” on the sixth floor when the outside irrigation is running. Again, no exorcist required, just a certified plumber. Old pipes + restrictions on updates = a moaning house.

What else can I say? The other “evidence” is pretty obviously garbage:

“I feel a presence.”
“I saw a shadow.”
“I felt the room get cold.”
“I smelled perfume.”
“I heard a voice.”

I rely on my perceptions as much as the next person. But I would be the first one to admit that I’ve seen and heard things before that simply weren’t there. Ever seen a mirage on a hot road? Human perception is pretty good, but definitely imperfect. And the perceptions of a very frightened person are arguable even less reliable than those of a person that is not in a state of “you’re-in-grave-danger” brain chemical overload. Magicians and illusionists thrive on the fact that our brains can be easily misdirected. They do it on purpose for entertainment, but it can also happen quite naturally in mundane situations where nobody is actively trying to fool us.

Additionally, we don’t always understand what sorts of things might be in our environment that we’re completely unaware of. For example, electromagnetic energy can be found sometimes at high levels in homes with faulty or substandard electrical wiring—the sort of wiring you might find in an older home, especially one that has existed long enough to have a “history.” This energy has been demonstrated in controlled circumstances to cause anxiety and hallucinations—even (the perception of) OBEs. It affects your brain and your perception.

In my own home, after we’d moved in and lived there a few months, I decided to adjust the air vents in the ceiling to alter airflow in the house. When I got up close to the vent in our living room, I saw “something” blocking the vent. My husband removed the vent, and removed a bag. It was filled with potpourri. It turned out there was one of these bags of potpourri in every vent in our house. We had no idea.

We also have wild birds that crack bird seed on our roof, one especially likes to do this on our outside chimney. In the house, it sounds like something knocking/banging in our fireplace.

I have decorative “light catchers” in the trees in my backyard. They reflect lights and shimmers not just around the yard, but also in the house at different times of day. I put them in the yard, but my point is that reflections can create odd light and shadow, from across a street or from a neighbor’s yard.

There are no end to unusual things that can make smells, sights, sounds, and even feelings that we can’t immediately explain. But assuming a cause and then “investigating” only in ways that are most likely to give us the answers we prefer, rather than explain what is really happening, is something we have to work hard to avoid if we value a handle on reality over subjective prejudice.

If I want to know why my house shakes, and I call paranormal investigators, psychics and ghost energy specialists—and I don’t bother to call a structural engineer to come out and do an evaluation, no one should be surprised if I find out that ghosts are the cause of the events. I did everything in my power to ensure the results correlated to my desired outcome. I used only those tools prescribed to find a “ghost” and did not use any of the tools that might have found a more mundane (and reasonable) explanation—which might have proven to also be the accurate explanation.

While ghosts are like souls and souls relate to religion and god in the great majority of cases, and while credulity is something we examine at this blog, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because a 14-year-old girl contacted the TV list recently to say that she wasn’t sure if there was a god or not. In order to find out, she read her Bible and prayed really hard. In the Bible she found a verse that said that whatever she prayed for, she’d get. So, she prayed for a “sign” from god—nothing spectacular, just something meaningful to her personally. She read and read and prayed and prayed and never got her sign. So now she thinks there is no god.

Then, just a few nights later, at the AE after-show dinner, I met someone who told me that when he was in elementary school, he can remember lying in bed, praying and crying, trying hard to believe because he was afraid that if he didn’t he’d burn in hell forever. He never got his sign, either. And eventually he told me, as he got older, the fear faded away.

I, personally, recall being about 15 when I prayed and prayed and read my Bible and begged in earnest for some “sign” to confirm god wanted me to believe and that he was there and willing to meet me halfway and help me, since I wanted so much to believe.

Unfortunately, for me, I got my sign. I won’t bore anyone with details (they’re at the ACA site in the Testimonials section if anyone cares), but I spent the next several years as a fundamentalist Christian, devoting my life in service to “Jesus.” Eventually I finally began to research the claims I’d accepted (most specifically from Josh McDowell) without examination, and I found I believed a load of indefensible false assertions. I went on as a theist, although not a Christian, for many more years, until I ultimately came to understand what I meant by “god” was just a metaphor. But for my years as a Christian, I can honestly say my life was not my own (as any good servant of the Lord will tell you—“not my will, but Thine…”) as I fervently devoted myself wholly to a fantasy. Years down the drain that I will never see again. Next time a theist tells you that if they’re wrong they lose nothing—feel free to tell them they’re wrong. If they’re devoted to their beliefs in the way the Bible demands for salvation, they’ve lost their very lives.

Meanwhile, the common thread in these tales is that we three (me, the girl, and the man at dinner) all used the methods prescribed by the church to figure out if what they were telling us to accept as true was valid. We let them stack the deck just as surely as the men and women on Paranormal State stacked the deck by not calling an engineer, but a psychic. We prayed and read the Bible and begged the very god we were supposed to be verifying. We used only those methods that would most likely yield the desired result of belief; and, in my case, I was willing to subjectively interpret just about anything as the “sign” I was seeking. Just like the homeowners on Paranormal State, we were motivated by fear. Unbelievers don’t pray and plead to the air and devote themselves to Bible study, to find answers upon which, in their minds, nothing rides. But stressed and terrified children do.

Children are convinced they’ll suffer horribly and eternally if they choose disbelief rather than belief. Then they’re told that the only way to know if it’s true is to read the Bible and pray and trust and dispel doubts. That is why, funny as many adult theists might seem, a part of my heart will always be reserved for compassion toward them because I u
nderstand firsthand the force it takes to brainwash a child and keep them that way long into adulthood. It’s quite a trick. You actually beat the child up so badly mentally that even when you’re not around, they keep beating themselves up for you.

I know that for every wingnut fundamentalist, someone’s life has been hijacked. Having lived it myself, I can’t help but feel a desire to see these people happy and well again. I want to give them back that understanding that every child deserves—that they are worthwhile and valuable as human beings—completely as they are, “imperfections” and all, without some supernatural fantasy to provide them with the sort of validation their parents and community should have provided them, but didn’t, because they participated in a religion that dehumanizes us and degrades us and teaches us to feel guilt and guile toward our very nature—with which there is nothing demonstrably wrong. Some of life is wonderful. Some of life is horrible. It’s a lot of different things rolled up into an existence that is part circumstance and part what we make it. To every child who has been or is being told that they need forgiveness for being human, that telling a lie or doubting justifies their condemnation and eternal torture, or that their will doesn’t matter, I say, “You are fine, just as you are; and if others can’t see that, it’s not your problem or your fault. The people trying to make you believe you’re nothing may have their hearts in the right place, but their heads are on completely backwards. Don’t let them tear you down and doubt yourself until you’ll trust anything except your own ability to make a judgment for yourself.”

I wrote back to the 14-year-old. I told her to consider something beyond the fact that she got no sign. I told her to ask herself what she would do if she wanted to learn about black holes. Would she sit in her room and think very hard about black holes and ask black holes to reveal themselves to her so she could know all about them? Or would she read about the data collected on black holes and the research and findings and evidence for them? What is the best way to find out if any Claim X is true? Certainly it’s not to immerse yourself only in the writings of those making the claim you’re trying to evaluate, and then repeatedly take part in a mental ritual where you pretend you believe the claim and keep beating yourself up for not believing it while you beg, tearfully, for any reason to accept it as true.

Surely anyone can see the problem with praying to the god whose existence I’m attempting to evaluate? Such a maneuver requires a presupposition that the god is actually there to begin with. That’s stacking the deck. That’s manipulating the sound byte results until I hear “get out,” or only having a psychic, not a plumber, assess the “moaning” in my house. It’s not a way to guarantee I’ll find what I’m looking for; but it’s a incredibly good way to strongly and favorably influence the possibility of a positive outcome in finding that a god exists. When I “find god” under such circumstances, it should be no more of a surprise than the psychic finding that a spirit, and not a stressed water pipe, is causing the moan.

Pascal’s Wager dies and is dead like a dead thing

Thanks to viewer Quinn Martindale for posting this quick snippet from a show this March in which Matt Dillahunty, in two minutes, says everything that needs to be said to destroy the most tired and banal argument for belief still making the rounds. You’d think most believers would have gotten the message that Pascal’s Wager is the sort of thing you only bring up if you’re walking around with the word DOOFUS tattooed to your forehead in a lovely decorative serif font. But you’d be surprised how many believers still take it seriously. After this, hopefully they’ll be properly schooled.

Yomin Postelnik, poster-boy for arrogant theistic fractal wrongness

Jan. 2009 Introduction & Addendum: The following snarkalicious post has since become somewhat legendary in the atheist/creationism/science blogosphere.

To cut a long story short, this is the one that led self-styled “conservative columnist” Yomin Postelnik to respond vengefully with bizarre edits to my Wikipedia entry (accusing me of all manner of crimes and misdemeanors, including fraud, drug addiction and pedophilia — vandalism that Yomin wasn’t smart enough to realize would be stamped with his IP address, 74.233.115.163), to launch a series of blogs solely geared toward smearing me (since taken down), and to eventually make an Internet-wide nuisance of himself by posting to such forums as RichardDawkins.net (link expired) and ChristianForums.com accusing me of harassment and something he called “Google stalking.” This activity only led people back here, where they could see for themselves what Yomin was really up to, and that his histrionic claims of being victimized by “militant atheists” led by me was revealed to be projection at its worst. The only one engaging in unbridled harassment and defamation was Yomin, against me.

My opinion is that Yomin is not merely a thin-skinned adolescent unable to handle criticisms; I think he has full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. The Wikipedia entry on the condition notes, “To the extent that people are pathologically narcissistic, they can be controlling, blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ views, unaware of others’ needs and of the effects of their behavior on others, and insistent that others see them as they wish to be seen… People who are overly narcissistic commonly feel rejected, humiliated and threatened when criticised. To protect themselves from these dangers, they often react with disdain, rage, and/or defiance to any slight criticism, real or imagined…. With narcissistic personality disorder, the person’s perceived fantastic grandiosity, often coupled with a hypomanic mood, is typically not commensurate with his or her real accomplishments.”

This is Yomin to a tee. He likes to imagine himself — hell, he’s desperate to imagine himself — a powerful and influential leader, and anything that threatens to tarnish this inflated self-image is met with ferocious outbursts of emotion.

The second half of 2008 appears to have been the worst six months of Yomin’s life. In September of that year, he had his pre-paid legal service send me a cease-and-desist letter, which was odd, because I wasn’t doing anything to him while he was actively maintaining no fewer than three anti-Wagner blogs. It transpired that this was a lame attempt to intimidate me into removing posts from this blog revealing his libelous activities. Basically toothless, because C&D letters carry no legal weight. In response to this, to get Yomin, basically, to pull his head out and back off, my attorney filed an online defamation suit at the end of October. Dumb luck, however, smiled on Yomin here, because for two months, the investigator employed by my lawyer in Florida claimed he could not find Yomin, and the two addresses we had for him were no longer current. This kept Yomin from actually being served for two months.

At the end of December, Yomin sent me a bizarre array of increasingly unhinged, delusional and vituperative emails, alternating pleas to end our conflict (which was entirely of his own making) with threats of further harassment if I didn’t take certain posts down from this blog. I forwarded all of these to my lawyer, who advised me that the whole affair was “just getting petty…you need to get this guy out of your life!” Also, to continue to pursue the suit would cost thousands of dollars I didn’t have. I had raised the filing fees initially through the help of online donations promoted by folks like PZ Myers. But I didn’t feel right continuing to go back to the same people for more money, when this was, truthfully, turning into a childish battle of egos in which Yomin was simply baiting me and trying desperately to drag me down to his level of juvenile vindictiveness. Therefore I agreed to a tentative truce with Yomin at the end of 2008.

Part of me regrets this, as, given Yomin’s narcissism, it basically means he thinks he “won” and that he’s been able, essentially, to get away with the kind of behavior that, had he been held accountable, would have (hopefully) resulted in some desperately needed character building. The evidence I had linking Yomin to the Wiki vandalism was, in my opinion, ironclad enough to assure a court decision against him. But I didn’t want to do this out of other people’s pockets, and, knowing the personality type I was dealing with here, it is dead clear that a legal victory against Yomin would have been portrayed by him as further evidence of his victimhood. It is simply better to have this poor sad fellow gone.

In his last emails to me, Yomin, in a revealing moment, exclaimed, “I have to defend my reputation.” What the narcissist never understands is that any damage to his reputation is the fault of his own actions. Ultimately, I decided it simply was not my job to help Yomin grow up. Materially, I had not been hurt in any way by Yomin’s foolish behavior, while Yomin’s name ultimately became synonymous with online hysterics of the most absurd sort. One of our commenters coined the phrase “pulling a Yomin” to refer to anyone having a four-alarm meltdown online. That’s a legacy hard to undo, and, in its way, more deflating in the long term than even a court decision.

So, enjoy the following, if you are so inclined.


August 2009 addendum: A number of people have brought it to my attention that Yomin is running for the Florida House in 2010! No wonder he was so frantic to get me to remove embarrassing information about his activities from this blog. While I am amused by this, and by the way a little amount of Googling reveals he is already alienating his hoped-for voter base with his usual online behaviors (like sockpuppeting in blog comments to make it appear he has hordes of supporters, a stunt he pulled all the time in his little battle with me, which was always rendered infinitely sillier by the fact he thought no one would notice he was doing it), I have to say I just don’t care. Yes, it is funny that a man who cannot even handle criticism on a blog thinks he’s got what it takes to enter the snake pit of politics. But as the GOP has sunk so thoroughly into extremism that many of them actually view an airhead like Sarah Palin as White House material, then I have to say their standards are now such that Yomin ought to be considered an entirely viable candidate. So I wish him the very best of success for victory in his campaign!


January 2011 addendum: After polling less than 6% of the vote in the GOP primaries, Yomin was arrested on November 12, 2010, on charges of misdemeanor domestic battery.

It’s been a while since I bloodied my knuckles and let some smug ignoramus have it right in the teeth. So I figured it’s time. This is a l-o-n-g one, but a fun one. I hope.

Via Dawkins’ site, I learn of a lengthy essay over at Canada Free Press by a nincompoop with the improbable name of Yomin Postelnik, with the grandiose title of “Logical Proof of the Existence of a Divine Creator, Why Atheism is Not Logically Sound”. If you thought Ray Comfort was a cocky assclown, you’ll love this guy. Postelnik fancies himself a master of logic (if not proper punctuation or English), and yet doesn’t seem to notice that h
is entire, long-winded blather amounts to one spectacular logical fallacy, namely, the argument from incredulity, with a heaping side dish of straw men. Here he sums up his whole position on why atheism is logically unsound.

No one in their right mind would claim that 10,000 hundred story buildings built themselves from randomness, even over time. Yet those who doubt the existence of a Creator believe that an entire universe, containing all of the billions of elements necessary for life to form, may have come about without a builder. As such, they give credence to billions of times more coincidences to having come about.

Ah, yes. It’s the old “just look at all the trees!” argument that Matt Dillahunty and I goofed on on the TV show last week, just on a slightly grander scale. Apart from making the fundamental dumb apologist mistake of inferring design in nature from observing it in known artifacts like buildings — I’ll explain why Paley’s famous “watchmaker” argument actually does not demonstrate intelligent design in nature a little later — Postelnik’s whole rant reveals little more than boilerplate religious scientific illiteracy, total ineptitude at this whole “logic” thing for which he repeatedly flatters himself, and a laughable tendency to recycle any number of long-refuted and feeble apologist canards as if they were amazing new concepts no atheist had ever considered before.

Let’s have fun going through Postelnik’s catalog of failings here, shall we?

Reading through this, you might wonder: why bother? Postelnik is so stupid that he can say this with a straight face: “Would human beings survive if one organ or cavity was missing or displaced, even after somehow being otherwise perfectly formed with no designer?” Well, knowing, as I do, several people who have had kidneys, bladders, appendixes, uteruses removed, I’d say, well yeah, duh. He’s so silly that he launches his whole article with false analogies and unsupported a priori assumptions like this, which reveal the pitiful depth of his idiocy in living Technicolor…

The simplest proof (yet one that no atheist has ever been able to counter effectively) is that a universe of this size and magnitude does not somehow build itself, just as a set of encyclopedias doesn’t write itself or form randomly from the spill of a massive inkblot.

Well, I bother because millions of people sadly think like this twat, that’s why, and they’re the ones launching all-out assaults on science education around the world in the name of their invisible magic sky fairy. It’s incumbent upon atheists not merely to refute their nonsense, but to take some of the air out of their puffed-up egos by blasting it to smithereens and peeing on the ashes to boot. I’ve written before about the way Christianity allows its dumbest believers to adopt an air of faux-intellectualism. Here the stupid is unmasked for all to see, and laugh at. Postelnik is the very model of fractal wrongess.

  1. Postelnik thinks scientific explanations are all about “random chance.” Towards this end, he offers up variants on the old “tornado in a junkyard” argument.

    [Atheists] believe that not only did whole planets appear spontaneously, but also believe that the fact that these planets do not collide as meteors do, that they have gravity, that they contain the proper atmospheric conditions for life to take hold and contain sustenance to sustain this life all happened by mere fluke.

    Reality check: Naturally, nothing in science (let alone atheism) promotes any of the nonsense Postelnik spews. Where in physics or cosmology is the theory proposed that planets emerged “spontaneously,” or that collisions between worlds never happen? (Such a collision is, in fact, why we have a moon, and an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.) Nowhere, of course, but Postelnik is typically butt-ignorant of the science he attacks and, like so many apologists, doesn’t realize what a fool he’s making of himself parading his lack of education in public. Planets, as any first year astronomy student will tell you, form within accretion discs of dust and other particles surrounding a star. Gravity, which Postelnik seems to think of as some ineffable magic property (he refers to celestial bodies as “possessing” gravity) when it’s nothing more than the natural attraction between objects based both on their respective masses and the inverse square law, eventually causes the particles in all this whirling dust to coalesce into planets. It is only a “spontaneous” process if you’re a fool who thinks spontaneity takes place over lengthy periods of time. But that seems to be a basic misunderstanding of creationist twits.

    Here’s what Postelnik is too thick to grasp. Science understands the eons of time required for celestial objects like stars and planets to form. And instead of the mere guesswork Postelnik seems to think scientists engage in (typical twaddle: “…they outrageously chalk up to coincidence billions upon billions of times more detail and design in all parts of life found in this universe”), there are in fact well understood laws upon which everything in the universe operates. The “spontaneous” appearance of a planet or a life form would, in fact, refute everything science understands about how nature works, since science does not argue for the spontaneous generation of these things. The laws of physics allow us to understand why planets, once they are locked in their orbits, don’t collide willy-nilly, though eventually their orbits could change or decay, and then they could. After all, whole galaxies collide, so certainly planets could.

    (Incidentally, you would think that with all his dogging on science, Postelnik ought to have some pretty impressive CV’s, don’t you? Well in fact…I know this will come as a shock…no. His bio identifies him as “the President of IRPW, a company that offers business plans, funding advice and facilitation, SBA loan applications, SWOT analyses, bold and effective marketing strategies, general business development and grant writing and research for non-profits and certain qualified businesses.” Clearly he has all the expertise he needs to explain why all the world’s leading astronomers, physicists, cosmologists, and biologists are wrong. One hopes, for the sake of IRPW’s business clients, the “research” Postelnik does for them isn’t as deficient as that which he’s done here.)

  2. Again with the “spontaneity”! Postelnik continues to demonstrate he snored his way through junior high science class by bringing up “spontaneity” straw men over and over again.

    Even if all the planets somehow formed themselves, all somehow staying in perfect orbit and possessing gravity, even take for granted that all the chemicals needed for life were so how [sic] there as well, by sheer happenstance, would it then be possible for billions of species to spontaneously come about, each with a male and female of each kind so that they could exist in the long run?

    Reality check: I’ll take “Scientifically Illiterate Verbal Diarrhea” for $1000, Alex.

    Let’s set aside the fact planets didn’t “somehow form themselves,” they were formed by well-understood natural laws. Let’s set aside the fact that most life on Earth is microbial, with many species reproducing asexually, some reproducing both sexually and asexually, and some, like viruses, unable to reproduce on their own at all. Let’s set aside the fact that, while the ultimate origins of life are still an open question, no one in science is arguing for its spontaneous — as in “poofed into existence in a puff of sm
    oke” — emergence. Let’s set aside the fact that the vast majority of Earth’s life forms, even the ones like dinosaurs who had the run of the place for far longer than we have or will, have eventually gone extinct. Let’s set aside the fact that, for over a billion years of Earth’s early existence, the whole planet was unable to harbor life. In fact, let’s set aside every fact that science has established about the development of life at all. And once we’re that stupid, we can begin to think along the lines of Yomin Postelnik. Because it’s only through a totality of ignorance that one can hold the views he holds.

    Where does his whole obsession with things popping up spontaneously come from? Why, from religion, of course. Remember, it isn’t science claiming that stars, planets, galaxies, people and puppy dogs emerged spontaneously. It’s religion. You know, God said “Let there be,” and poof, there it was. That’s how tards like Postelnik think things really did happen. And once you think things really did happen in that way, then certainly it will seem illogical to think they happened that way all by themselves, without some agency bringing them about. But of course, things did not poof into existence spontaneously. Not even the universe. Remember: the Big Bang theory is not a creation ex nihilo theory. The Big Bang only describes the event that caused the universe to expand into its current state. There had to be something to go bang in the Big Bang, after all.

    Nothing in science, outside of the more esoteric realms of quantum mechanics, argues for the spontaneous creation of things from nothingness. Religion does. Postelnik is, hilariously, attacking his straw man of science by accusing it of making the very claims his religion makes. The problem isn’t that Postelnik doesn’t accept spontaneous creation. Being religious, he does. But religion offers up a god, and science doesn’t, and so in that context, science has the sillier explanation, you see? This is how people with a head full of Bronze Age myths and no education in actual science think. Pathetic, isn’t it?

    Postelnik babbles on a bit, repeating his bogus analogies (remember, encyclopedias couldn’t write themselves!), occasionally pausing to compliment himself on his brilliance (he has to, as no educated person would), ignoring all of the detailed fields of scientific study that do in fact show that everything we observe in nature can very easily evolve and develop over time. Like many apologists, he seems to think blustery rhetoric constitutes evidence.

    Then he offers up what he thinks are three “stand out” arguments for God, which have been demolished many times, and which I will now demolish all over again.

  3. And the “stand out” arguments are: (And savvy readers will note that Postelnik isn’t even clear on what he does claim to believe. His definitions of the three following arguments are rather confused and conflated, overlapping one another oddly. The way he defines the anthropic principle is closer to the definition of the first cause argument, while his definition of the teleological argument actually sounds more like the anthropic principle. The man argues like a drunk driver.)
    • The anthropic principle.

      Postelnik thinks: The anthropic argument contends that the universe is too complex to have no Creator. This is in effect the central point of this column, although explained in a more common manner.

      A more foolish manner, you mean. Let’s deal with the obvious initial objection, which is that if complexity requires a Creator, then that Creator must be at least as complex as his universe and must have had a Creator too, and so on, ad infinitum. I mean, it’s just logical!

      The anthropic principle has been punctured so many times and in so many different ways that one has to wonder just how many rocks Postelnik has been hiding under all his life to convince himself that “I have yet to meet an atheist who can make even a feeble argument to counter any of these points.” I don’t get the idea he’s met many atheists at all, and certainly has read no atheist literature, all of which has nuked every silly argument Postelnik proudly flogs. To date, the most interesting and unusual refutation of the AP isn’t so much a refutation at all: in The God Delusion, Dawkins makes the fascinating point that the AP is not an argument for God, but a substitute for one. Properly understood, what is known as the Weak Anthropic Principle fully supports a naturalist explanation of reality.

      Douglas Adams lampooned the AP in his famous bit about the puddle of water remarking on how amazing it was that the hole it was in was so perfectly formed to contain it. This is the problem with the AP if used to support theism: it’s a tautology. Any universe whose properties for supporting life such as ours we could marvel at would have to be one in which we existed in the first place. This fact alone says nothing about a godly designer, nor does it address the likelihood of other possible universes containing entirely different properties, under which entirely different forms of life might arise. Hey, the believer might say, there’s no evidence for those other universes, so that’s just hypothetical guesswork! To which we say, by Jove, I think you’ve got it! Your God is the same kind of hypothetical guess, chum. At least the concept of other universes or other physical properties for sustaining life are hypotheses about natural rather than supernatural things.

      Understood as supporting natural processes, the AP points out that life developed after an environment in which it could exist arose. We, along with millions of other species (making the term “anthropic” both arrogant and inaccurate — since dogs exist, why do we never hear theists argue the “caninopic” principle?), were fortunate enough to be that life. Such an environment could just as easily not have arisen, as in the false start we see evidence of having occurred — remnants of vast flows of water, etc. — on Mars. In other words, we have been fine-tuned (by the ongoing processes of evolution) for our environment, not vice versa.

      The vast bulk of this universe is deeply inimical to life. Most of it, as Postelnik might have overlooked, is hard vacuum hovering around zero Kelvin. And of all the planets we know of, ours is the only one we yet know of teeming with life.

      An all-powerful universe-creating God could easily have populated every single planet and satellite and asteroid out there with highly advanced forms of life. Argue for an all-powerful God, and suddenly the need of the universe to possess specific properties for the support of life becomes superfluous. Unless the theist wants to argue that natural laws don’t permit that. In which case, they’ve just argued their God is subject to (thus not transcending) natural laws, and not likely to be the creator of them. An omnipotent being would not be bound by the kinds of natural laws that keep the planets on their courses, and only allow life on our little blue globe while seven other perfectly lovely planets full of pretty exotic real estate go to waste. He wouldn’t need to “fine tune” the universe for life. He could merely say, as the Bible has him say, “Let there be…” and there it is.

    • The cosmological argument.

      Postelnik thinks: The cosmological argument maintains that finite matter (original matter, which was clearly finite) cannot create a universe that is greater than itself.

      The cosmological argument is better known as the “first cause” argument, one basic objection to which I’ve mentioned above: the problem of infinite regress of Gods. Postelnik adds confusion to the whole thing in trying to skirt this objection, by qualifying his version of the argument to state that “finite matter…cannot create a universe that is greater than itself.” But he offers no support for this simple assertion, and in terms of its content, it’s really not
      hing more substantial than the creationists’ routine insistence that complexity cannot arise from simplicity through natural processes. Postelnik simply wants to throw the phrase “finite matter” into the mix as a way of differentiating his God, which he naturally assumes is “infinite matter.” But in making this distinction, our Master of Logic has fallen into another fallacy, that of special pleading. Nature has to obey these particular rules which disallow it from creating a universe, says the apologist. So here is my God, who doesn’t have to obey those rules. Convenient, eh?

      Cosmological arguments answer no questions at all while raising more than they ever can. Why make assumptions about the supposed limitations of “finite matter,” and what evidence does Postelnik provide for the “infinite matter,” a.k.a. God, that he clearly sees as the “logical” alternative? Why assume, even if such “infinite matter” exists, that it needs to bear any resemblance to Postelnik’s ideas about a God? Finally, the fallacy at the core of cosmological arguments is that they assume knowledge of conditions at the beginning of the universe — mainly, that it was “caused” — that simply are not known. Their very premises are insupportable. They fail before they even get going.

    • The teleological argument.

      Postelnik thinks: Especially compelling is the teleological argument, that the existence of a Creator can be seen from the fact that the universe works in perfect harmony, as would a giant machine. Gravity, orbits, chemical atmospheres and all other ingredients needed for life to exist come together in unison to allow such existence to happen. An enormous machine that works like clockwork needs to have a Creator.

      Postelnik embarrasses himself hopelessly here. His scientific illiteracy is complete, and his fondness for bad analogies is simply spewing over. Again, good old natural laws that have been understood and derived through observation — all the way from classical Newtonian physics to the more exotic fields of study that new research and knowledge are just now opening up — are proving entirely sufficient to explain why the universe functions the way it does, and though we still have numerous unanswered questions, we don’t need to invoke any magic man in the sky just yet to fill our knowledge gaps.

      And it’s hardly a flawless, clockwork-like process. Some planets have atmospheres conducive to life (though ours is the only one we know of), most have deadly atmospheres or none whatsoever. There is evidence at least one of our sister planets, Mars, started out warm and watery, which would be life-friendly conditions, then failed. Where in that fact is evidence of a creating hand, let alone that of the Biblical God who supposedly made us in his image, whom Postelnik is clearly trying to argue for? If anything, what we observe about the way life has developed on Earth (and more importantly, where life has failed to develop) is ideal evidence of the way evolution allows organisms to adapt. Speaking of which: there are over 1,000 species of parasites that can live in the human body. Evolutionary explanations for why they exist make sense, but why would Postelnik’s God need, let alone desire, to “design” such creatures to infect us? Is this part of his “perfect harmony”? Maybe it’s part of our punishment for Eve’s “fall,” eh?

      Once more with feeling: argue for an omnipotent God, and all this talk about the universe needing to obey specific laws, work in “harmony” like a “machine,” have only certain planetary conditions to harbor life, and all that, is so much superfluous noise. Postelnik’s all-powerful creator God could, if he so wished (and, given this God’s obsession with being worshiped by as many sentient beings as possible, there’s no reason for him not to wish), have intelligent beings living on every planet in the solar system, on every airless asteroid, hell, even on the surface of the sun and floating in pure vacuum between the worlds. The great irony of apologists who employ such things as design and anthropic arguments is that they don’t realize they are using limits to prove the existence of their limitless God. The premise of their arguments contradicts the nature of the God they’re arguing for.

  4. And now for a little projection. Postelnik goes on to make a further fool of himself by throwing out some vacuous twaddle about how (he thinks) scientists think that will utterly fry your irony meters. After falsely claiming, without citing sources, that more scientists are embracing theism than otherwise, he goes into what can only be called weapons-grade projection. Try this on for size.

    However, we must realize that while the sophistry it takes to purport a falsehood can be easily countered, the person who has upheld such notions for decades must have each of his or her counterpoints addressed. This is able to be done smoothly, in light of the inherent logic that necessitates the existence of a conscious Creator, but it must be done thoroughly.

    Encouraging atheists to open their minds to pure logic and to possibilities that they hitherto only sought to counter or to avoid on any pretext also involves an emotional challenge for them, as they must open themselves to the possibility of having to shed preconceived notions that they’ve held firm for decades. And that, rather than facts, is the primary challenge to exposing them to insightful logic. However, if they are willing to address the issue honestly, a search for the truth should be of paramount importance and enough reason for them to take an open look.

    *snort* Yeah, whatever you say, Captain Logic.

    Postelnik also amusingly advises all us atheist sophists to read Anthony Flew’s book, There Is a God. Thing is, Richard Carrier has investigated this book thoroughly, and even corresponded with Flew. And the fact is that the book was not written by Flew at all, but entirely by evangelical Christian Roy Abraham Varghese, who is given a co-author credit on the cover. And one of the arguments in the book is one that Flew, in a letter to Carrier, had abandoned before the book was published. (Questions about Flew’s possible mental decline remain, but are ultimately irrelevant. If a former atheist suddenly became a theist, and did so on the basis of lousy arguments, that would not undermine the views of rational atheism. It would simply mean we had a stupid ex-atheist out there.) So if Postelnik wants to shore up his case for theism with another fallacy — argument from (ex-atheist) authority — he’ll have to do better than Flew.

And ba-dee, ba-dee, that’s all, folks. I was going to go on another round of ridicule over Postelnik’s final paragraphs, in which he claims the Bible reveals the first and second laws of thermodynamics before any stoopid scientist ever thought of them, so there. (He grossly misstates both laws, unsurprisingly.) But by this point I would hope I’ve exposed Postelnik’s staggering silliness in all its tarnished glory, and frankly I’m as tired of writing this as I’m sure you are of reading it (assuming you still are). Maybe you folks will have fun refuting those final paragraphs of his yourselves. The fellow is your typical fundamentalist apologist, an intellectual poseur through and through, and in his entire article he never once advances a single new argument. He merely recycles every tired falsehood and fallacy that defenders of the faith have tried again and again, and they work no better for him. The only novelty about Postelnik’s writing is watching a bozo who thinks he’s some kind of logical paragon when what he really means by “logical” is “Gawrsh, it makes sense ta me!”

Stick with, uh, your “bold and effective marketing strategies,” dude, okay? I have no idea if you do that well, either. But it can’t be as bad as your oh-so-“logical” attempts at apologetics. (Or as dumb as the way you chose to respond to this critique of your essay.)

Chuck Colson’s dubious prison statistics

I am saving up material to discuss with Chuck Colson, but I couldn’t wait on this bit. While reading his new book, The Faith, I came across a passage in which he touted the great success of his prison ministry. In a chapter called “Truth,” Colson writes:

“The only thing the god of tolerance hates more than Christians making truth-claims is Christians proving them. Beginning with a facility in Houston, Prison Fellowship now runs residential programs, ‘spiritual boot camps,’ within prisons in locations scattered across the country. This is called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative — or IFI. We have, since the beginning, contended that these demonstrate the truth of the Gospel in transforming lives. University of Pennsylvania researchers reported that IFI graduates had an 8 percent re-incarceration rate versus 20 percent in a comparable control group (and 67 percent nationally). Prison officials were astounded.”

Maybe they were astounded by the audacity with which Colson trumps up statistics.

I remembered discussing this on “The Non-Prophets” years ago, and had a vague memory that there was something fishy about these numbers. Like, for instance, people who start the program but then drop out were not counted, and when you factor this in, there is actually a HIGHER recidivism rate (the percent of them who return to prison) than average. It’s old news, but I had a hard time calling back the details.

Still, I imagined bringing this point up with Colson, and he would probably say: “Of course I am not responsible for prisoners who do not finish my program. They didn’t really get the faith. But look at the wonderful results based on people who did finish!”

I looked up the story on this, and I found out that it’s much worse than even I remembered. Here’s the story:

Faith-Based Fudging

Actually, not only do they not count people who didn’t finish the program in prison… they actually discount many of the people who did go through the entire program. This is pretty astounding, but here it is:

If you don’t get a job after you leave prison, you are not counted as a graduate.

Unbelieveable. In order to get these results, their own study was cherry picking a reduced set of people who have already achieved a measure of success — getting a job after leaving prison — and then they claimed credit for it!

Think about it. If you were to simply take a master list of all prisoners who get out of jail, regardless of whether they attended Colson’s “boot camp” or not, and then you only counted the ones who managed to get a job, then of course they would have a much lower tendency to go back to jail. If they have a job and money, there is less need for them to commit more crimes.

I’m almost surprised that Colson doesn’t simply discount everyone who goes back to jail as a “graduate.” Then he could claim that his graduates have a 0% recidivism rate.

I want to give Colson the benefit of the doubt and claim that he simply is not aware of the error in his method. But this study has been out for five years. Furthermore, in the very next paragraph, he verbally assaults reverend Barry Lynn, who sued IFI. Colson’s take on this is: “To prove our truth-claims proved an outrage that tolerance could not abide.” I looked up Americans United’s page on the case. The study I just mentioned was cited as part of it.

There is, of course, not a mention of this. Not a response, not a refutation; he simply goes on repeating statistics that were shown invalid years ago.

Why and How

Many years ago, a Krishna friend said to me, “People often ask ‘why?,’ when what they really mean is ‘how?’”

Initially, this statement confused me. But he explained it further. It made sense to me. And since that day, I have adopted his stance.

On Yesterday’s show, we had a Christian caller who told us that she believes in god because she has personally witnessed miracles. Matt asked her to give us an example of a miracle. She said there were so many to choose from it would take too much time to go into them. Matt asked her to just give us one example.

If you are an atheist who is ever engaged by Christians, you know that it’s important to get an example of a miracle, because Christians do not agree on what constitutes a “miracle.” Like most other religious terms, the word is meaningless, and pretty much self-defined, along the lines of something like, “love” or “freedom.”

The woman explained her “miracle” pretty thoroughly. But it didn’t take much time to see this woman defines miracle as “a natural/reasonable occurrence that I interpret as a sign from god.” Her definition is not unlike an autobiographical story I once read about a Christian woman who hated the color of carpet in her church. When it was changed out, she knew it was a sign she should marry her fiancé, because, prior to that, she had determined she must be married in that church, but couldn’t bear to be married on that hideous shade of aqua carpeting. Most atheists don’t think of these types of things as “miracles,” so it’s always good to check before assuming when a Christian uses a word that relates to the supernatural. Since none of it is available for examination/verification to anyone—we’re left with the reality that any such term has only the meaning that any individual Christian assigns.

The woman on the phone said her reason for believing in god was that she began asking questions such as “why is the sky blue?” And she prayed ardently to a god (that she didn’t believe in) to let her know if he was there. She also began to research different religions. And she found one that really spoke to her, and became a Christian. So, now, in her words, “I know that I know that I know [there is a god].”

There are some obvious issues with a claim of “not believing” a god exists while I’m repeatedly pleading to that god. But this is already going to be long, so let me jump to where it ties into another obvious problem: the problem of asking for signs from spirit beings to determine whether or not they exist.

In other words, any “sign” I receive as the result of prayer is only open to subjective interpretation, and not to any verification. Christians put forward that it’s wrong to ask for any sort of verifiable miracle or definitive sign. To do so would be “testing” god—a serious no-no. So a person making this sort of plea is open to accepting any sort of subtle influence or coincidence. They’re not asking for Earth-shattering, convincing evidence—just something “meaningful” to them, personally.

What’s the obvious problem? Well, ask them how this sounds to their ears: “If you wanted to know if Big Foot exists, and I told you that I know Big Foot exists because I prayed to god for a sign to let me know if they exist. And after a few days, weeks, and months, I got nothing. So, I started researching Big Foot online—reading all I could find. I also kept on praying and asking to feel assured and have a sign. I prayed and prayed and kept on praying, and reading about Big Foot, until I finally encounter a subtle coincidence—a better job offer, a feeling of euphoria/peace, (or even a video of Big Foot online)—that convinced me god was telling me that Big Foot do, in fact, exist. And so now, I know that I know that I know Big Foot is out there in the woods.”

Would they think I had justification for belief in Big Foot? Or would they think I wanted so badly to believe that I just drilled myself until I finally accepted anything as proof of Big Foot’s existence?

If I want to know if a god exists, why not check into it like I would check into the existence of anything else—of Big Foot? Clearly define what it means to “exist,” exactly what it is I’m seeking, and where it should be found manifesting, then check to see if it’s actually manifesting there in the way I expect. If it’s not, then what I am seeking doesn’t exist. That’s, honestly, the best anyone could do to make a determination of the existence of any item-X. Praying to item-X for assurance it exists makes no sense unless, on some level, I’ve already accepted all sorts of claims about the existence of this item and how it operates—even while I attempt to assure others I haven’t presupposed these claims to be valid. I’m certainly throwing out everything I have learned in life about how to determine whether or not something exists and how to determine truth value, and it appears I’ve also, to some significant degree, accepted all the terms laid down by superstition in my search. And if I was truly skeptical—is this really how I’d go about it? Would I see proof of the validity of a god on supernatural terms? Or would I go with what I know to be tried and true in existent reality?

But that’s a huge digression. Back to “why” and “how.” Definitions can change, I understand. And I will be the first to admit that people I know use “why” and “how,” often, interchangeably. I’m not writing to say “you’re wrong.” I’m writing to call out a subtle difference that may/may not speak to a difference in perspective that an atheist should be aware of when he or she is engaged by a Christian. When the Christian says, “I was asking myself, ‘why is the sky blue?’” I should already be wary, because the Christian is potentially starting off asking the wrong (and potentially very loaded) question. With my prior disqualifier regarding definitions firmly in place, I’m going to appeal now to Webster for a standard, accepted definition.

“Why” is listed as basically meaning: “For what reason, cause, purpose or motive.” “How” is listed as “in what manner, in what way, by what means.”

Can they be used interchangeably? I think so. However, consider this: In a discussion about whether or not the universe is the result of natural causes or intelligent purpose, doesn’t the term “why” carry with it the potential to muddy the waters with presupposition, whereas “how” is more unpresuming and more to the point? If a god did it, “how” will get to that. If a god didn’t do it, “how” will also get to that. But if a god didn’t do it, “why” may or may not get to that—depending on how we’re using it.

Depending on what the Christian means by “why,” the word comes preloaded to presume purpose and motive in creation. When I hear a Christian ask “Why X?,” where X is a natural function, I will say, “I think you mean ‘how’ X.” The less biased and more accurate question is “How is the sky blue?”

We use “why” rather than “how” so often that that last question may sound awkward to some. But I recommend getting used to it. And I recommend pointing out the bias that comes with a preloaded word like “why” when a Christian uses it. “Do you recognize that a more appropriate word would be ‘how’—since ‘why’ presupposes motive in natural functions and causes? You’re potentially already starting off with a bias that the universe has purpose. And since that is the very point of our debate, I have to declare that I don’t know if there is any reason ‘why’ the sky is blue—but I believe we can discuss something of how the sky is blue; and if it leads to a purpose, so be it.”

Am I being over-analytical here? I don’t think so. Consider that the Christian on the phone was responding to Matt’s question about what made her believe a god exi
sts. She answered that she was putting questions to herself, such as “Why is the sky blue?” What does that have to do with god unless you perceive a motive behind the reality that the sky is blue? If Matt had asked her a question about determining truth values or finding the cause of natural realities, then there probably would be no reason to consider the word “why” to have any ulterior meaning beyond it’s interchangeable use with “how.” But in the context of “Why do I believe an intelligent being is behind the natural universe?,” the idea that someone pondered “Why is the sky blue?,” takes on a whole new (pardon the pun) shade of meaning.

Make of it what you will. Draw your own conclusions. If you think I’m being too detailed in analyzing the language people use, then disregard my point entirely. But I find that definitions often are key source of misunderstandings in any discussion with a Christian. And, so, I see no reason to allow for more than will certainly already occur. “Why” has, over the years, become a red flag to me in discussions with Christians. I don’t know there are any “why”s for the things they want to know. But we can talk about “how”s, if they’re ready to investigate nature in an unbiased fashion.

More faux-intellectualism: the appeal to other ways of knowing

In this comments thread, we’ve been visited once again by Rhology, who says:

I don’t agree that God is unprovable or unproven. Not provable by naturalistic means, of course, but there’s no reason to restrict ourselves to solely naturalistic means.

What, exactly, are the “non-naturalistic” means that Rho proposes? How do they work? What are their methodologies? Can one use them to test a falsifiable hypothesis and formulate a theory which has predictive power? Rho seems to imply this, since his statement suggests God’s existence can thereby be (and actually has been) proven. But if you’re looking for a real explanation of how to go about seeking knowledge using “non-naturalistic means,” then Rho will disappoint you.

This is the appeal to other ways of knowing, a common bit of hand-waving employed not just by religionists, but practitioners of all manner of woo. Skeptico has also written about this. And I hate to say it, but it seems to be a view that not only has traction amongst the anti-science clods you’d expect, but among people in the scientific community who should know better, usually in a misguided attempt at offering a sop to the ignorant in the belief that those people would simply be too scared of the threat science poses to their precious belief of choice unless the olive branch of appeasement is offered.

Case in point: the National Academy of Sciences has just released a booklet for the lay reader (you can download the whole thing as a free PDF) spelling out the case for evolution and against ID in a very clear, accessible, and commendable way. But the book makes the concessions to religion that has caused guys like PZ Myers and Larry Moran to roll their eyes. “Science and Religion Offer Different Ways of Understanding the World,” trumpets one chapter heading. But they don’t. Not even remotely. Science offers ways of understanding the world, religion offers supernatural beliefs in place of understanding, which actively impede many people’s ability to achieve understanding. It really is a big blemish in an otherwise scientifically sound book. Then again, if the way in which this “different way of understanding” actually works, and how its conclusions can be determined to be just as epistemologically valid as those of science, were actually explained in detail, then I’d happily sing a different tune. But no, we just get the assertion that a “different,” “non-naturalistic” means of examining truth claims exists, and that it’s better, and that anyone who tries to rebut this is simply “making excuses” for science’s own presumed failings. That’s religion for you. No evidence is ever needed, only that whose existence conveniently resides in some “non-naturalistic” realm only discernible to those who have thrown off materialism’s presumptions.