A personal AETV loss

Via email today, I learned the sad news of the passing of Ashlea Doty at the age of 34. When I was host from 2002-04, Ashlea was part of the AETV studio crew. She was enormously good humored, and was one of the four of us who visited a Halloween “Hell House” at a local Pentecostal church the first year any of us did that (my report on that night appears to have been scrubbed from the internets following the discontinuation of GeoCities). After I left the show, she had already drifted away from ACA, but I’d still see her on occasion working as a vet tech at the clinic where I took my dog. She’ll be missed by those who knew her, and to everyone else, remember that every day above ground is a good day. Make them all count.

Last night at Threadgill’s

All right all right, I hyped up the surprise at dinner after the show, so I feel like I should just get it out and not wait on pictures to surface.

The Everything Else Atheist and I are now engaged. There, I said it. In a highly unconventional move, since we are godless heretics who scoff at tradition, she proposed to me.

Obviously none of this was a surprise to me since I announced it in advance. We had discussed marriage already and I already knew that she was planning to pull this off at dinner. What I was not expecting, though, was that she enlisted three of her coworkers at Texas Campaign for the Environment to show up dressed as the Bad Horse chorus from Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog. They sang the song, but the lyrics were, er… modified, to warn me of dire consequences unless I said yes.

I said yes.

The turnout was great, with about 30 people in total showing up. Among those attending were my son Ben, and a rare appearance by my sister Keryn and her husband Michael, and of course the usual crew along with numerous show cohosts.

Thanks everyone, for being there! And to everyone who knew exactly what was about to happen, thanks for keeping the secret.

Sorry about this, gang

…But I’ve activated comment moderation again, at least until a certain mentally ill Canadian gets bored and fucks off. It’s just easier to run interference on his unhinged ravings than be constantly logging on all day to delete them. To all our loyal regulars, just consider things business as usual. Don’t let moderation keep you from commenting. Either Kazim or I will approve your posts, no problem. Yes, “Mr FreeThinker,” we’ll even approve you, because even though you couldn’t argue your way out of a wet paper bag, you are not to my knowledge a known psychotic or wannabe domestic terrorist. And your comments do keep the threads lively.

I ♥ Iron Chariots

Just wanted throw some words of praise at the intrepid editors over at Iron Chariots. I just finished writing a long email response to someone who wanted to know what came before the big bang. When I was finished, I thought to myself, “Self, this would be a great addition to the big bang article at Iron Chariots.”

When I got there, however, I discovered that edits were completely unnecessary, as a very thorough and well written account of what I wanted to say was already there. Some of my thoughts about the cosmological argument were not in the big bang article, but instead there was a very tidy link to a cosmological argument page with some great responses. And when I thought “Ah but this doesn’t address the kalam version” I was again proved wrong, as one sentence in the middle helpfully informed me that “Changing ‘Everything that exists has a cause’ to ‘Everything that begins to exist has a cause’ produces a variant known as the Kalam cosmological argument” which in turn led to another page with some stuff I hadn’t even thought of saying.

Then I thought “Surely there’s a lot to be done on the transcendental argument. I remember how incomplete it was when I looked it up while talking to Matt Slick.” Well, the page is in progress, but it already has the full version of the Slick argument posted, plus some initial refutations based partly on Matt’s and my discussions with him.

Needless to say, I’m delighted. It lightens the load of answering emails tremendously, because I can just link a pre-written article which expresses it better than I would off the cuff. That is, of course, exactly what we hoped for when we created this wiki.

I well remember when about 50% of the content had to be generated by me personally, so I’m gratified to see that it’s progressing very well without my intervention. Thanks!

Sometimes it’s nice to disengage…

Again, the blog has lain fallow for around a week. Sorry about this. I keep forgetting that when I don’t post, no one else does either. But then we all have lives down here, and sometimes that just takes us away from the world of computering and blogging and online ranting. And I must say, it’s nice to take a break sometime.

Because dealing with the nonstop depredations of those with whom we’re unfortunate enough to share the planet can just be wearying. Sometimes it’s just nice to go off and live your life, blessedly free of religion and crazy religionists, and unhinged political ideologues.

I mean, good grief, in the past week, since the Tiller murder, we’ve not only had another right-wing psychotic demonstrate his moral superiority to us all by going on a public shooting rampage (today’s appalling incident at the Holocaust Museum), but we’ve also seen a spectacular act of douchebaggery from — as if they could get any worse — Operation Rescue, who have actually had the audacity to make an offer to buy the now-closed clinic of Dr. Tiller. I cannot imagine what they would want it for, except as a chance to showboat. And the Tiller family lawyers, recognizing an exercise in showboating when they see one, have turned them down flat. I mean, how could anyone interpret the purchase offer as anything but tacit approval of Tiller’s murder? Even if that is the last thing O.R. intended by making the offer, well, you know, appearances count.

I’d like to think that maybe O.R. have sprouted a sudden conscience, the way your nose sometimes sprouts a pimple while you sleep, and thought that they might turn Tiller’s clinic into something like an adoption agency. But then I’m reminded of the fact that radical anti-abortionists don’t give a shit about human life unless it’s fetal. Once those babies are out of the sanctified amniotic sac, they’re on their own! And don’t even think about offering them anything like health care.

So, yeah, sometimes, it’s just nice to shut the crazy out and decompress for a while. Read a book. Spend time with your family and pets. Resuscitate an old hobby, like gardening or working out. It can be a relief when the lunacy that has taken over our planet gets too much for you. At least, it’s a relief that’ll last until some enraged, God-soaked lunatic bursts through the door and opens fire.

Whassup with the show…

Okay, so as I understand it, here’s how things are as of tonight.

Today’s show was the last to be recorded out of the Access studios, for at least the summer months of June-August. Exactly when in August, or after August, they will reopen, I haven’t heard. I know they’re spending a month renovating and upgrading. Then there will be another month devoted to training up producers on the new equipment.

Next weekend will be a weekend off for us, so no show on Ustream or otherwise. The following Sunday, June 14, which is the next one I’m scheduled to do, will be attempted out of Matt’s place. We’ll try to do video, which will all depend on how much the various hardware and software we have decide they like each other. It will also require Matt to sponge down his walls and hide the inflatable tapir, which we keep bugging him about, but you know bachelors and housekeeping.

It’s possible it could be an audio-only show, which would mean AETV will basically be another NPR for the time being. But if we can do video, we will.

We may or may not be able to take calls, so I’ve been warned to be prepared. Lovely. As we won’t have a strict 90-minute time slot either, the show may be longer or shorter.

In other words, expect us to be working through lots of DIY-centric teething pains as we strive to keep bringing you AETV all by our little selves. Personally, I just can’t imagine anything going wrong….

We get email, yes we do. We get email, how about you?

A sampling of our latest, exactly as written:

FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT LETS ASSUME THAT GOD EXISTS ,WHO DO YOU BELIEF CREATED HIM?

I WOULD ALSO ASSUME THAT FROM YOUR POINT VIEW THAT MATH IS 100% TRUE. SO LETS ASSUME THAT THEIR IS NO GOD, SO ARE YOU 100% CERTAIN, AND IF YOU ARE WOULD’T THAT GAVE YOU A TITLE OF BEING GOD.. SO NOT BEING SARCASTIC BUT TRYING TO UNDERSTAND YOUR POINT VIEW, CAN YOU BE THE CREATOR OF ALL THINGS…

[...Long, deep sigh...]

Shirts ship Friday the 13th

A quick note about the AXP T-shirts (see sidebar), which will at last be ready this Friday. If there’s one thing cooler than having two months in a row with a Friday the 13th in them, it’s that you get AXP shirts into the bargain.

The initial print run is sold out. But a second print run will be a much simpler (and faster) thing to do, as it will only involve a phone call saying “I need more shirts.” To make it worthwhile though, it’d be nice to have a good healthy second run ordered — say, 50 shirts. I know we’re all keeping tight belts right now. But everyone could use a sexay new shirt, if only to replace the one that living under eight years of a religious right presidency stole off your backs.

Any shirt orders placed between now and Wednesday will be ones I’ll try to have ready for the Friday shipping, along with the first batch. Don’t forget to include your size, which is something a lot of folks have been forgetting. There should be a text field you can use for that.

Atheist evangelism and the problem of infrastructure

Hi.  I’ve got stuff on my mind, so settle in.  This might take a while.

Yesterday I was searching through my saved media files for something to listen to, and I came across this debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox.  It’s about six months old and an hour long.  Lennox is one of those smug “academic” style theologians, saying — Ha ha — of course the universe is fourteen billion years old, nobody seriously contests that!  But philosophers and historians alike all agree on the historical resurrection of Jesus, let me name drop a few names and throw out some academic words to blind you with my erudition.  Etc.

As I listened to this discussion, something gradually dawned on me about Richard Dawkins… he’s not really very good at this.  Oh sure, Dawkins had a strong initial presentation, but in the second half, Lennox just goes steamrolling all over him, babbling about Genesis and miracles and the wonderful love of Jesus Christ, virtually uninterrupted.

A couple of times, Lennox brought up “famous scientists” (i.e., Francis Collins) who believe in God, and Dawkins responds by sounding shocked, saying something like “No, really??”  At that point I let out a big vocal “WTF???”  I’m not sure what Dawkins was sounding so shocked about… perhaps he was really trying to say “Seriously, you’re not trying to use Mr. ‘Waterfall Split Three Ways‘ to support your position, are you?”  But in the audio it came off as “Oh my goodness, I had no idea that Francis Collins was a theist!  This is a simply devastating turn of events!”

Elsewhere, Dawkins asks “You don’t honestly believe in miracles like turning water into wine, do you?”  And Lennox, in his cute little Irish accent, goes “I dyoo, and let me tell ye whae.”  Then he proceeds to ramble at length about the amazing creator of the universe and the awesome power of the miracles that are made possible through him.  PZ Myers had a positive spin on this debate.  He says: “Dawkins played it right, letting Lennox just run off at the mouth and expose the inanity of the theological position.”

I’m sorry Paul, I love your blog dearly, but in this case you’re wrong.  Dawkins did not play it right, and here’s why.  The inanity of Lennox is obvious to you and me, but a Christian audience just eats that stuff up.  Even a largely neutral audience will see Lennox as winning that point, simply because it wasn’t effectively challenged.

Meanwhile, as I listened to it, I could practically hear our own Matt Dillahunty’s voice jumping in: “Hang on… hang on… hang on…”  Most seasoned veterans of the TV show would not let Lennox go on for so long without backing up the discussion and trying to take a closer look at some of his claims.  Had Matt or I been there, Lennox would be talking about how amazing it is that the order of creation in Genesis perfectly matches what science has discovered, and we’d jump in and yell “Plants didn’t start growing before the sun existed, asshat!”

This is not an uncommon reaction for me, either.  About 90% of atheist debates I hear wind up with me grinding my teeth in frustration after a while.  There are just so many missed opportunities, so many places where I remember when the same topic came up on the show, and there’s a perfect one-liner to knock it down.  But the atheist just lets it blow right on by.

On the TV show, we regularly debate people with dissenting views, by making a point of prioritizing calls from theists and others likely to disagree.  Matt, Tracie, Don, Martin, Jen, Jeff, and I, deliberately do this on a regular basis.  (I’d also throw in many past hosts and cohosts, including Ashley and Keryn.)  The response to the Atheist Experience has been enormous since we gained a YouTube presence.  We routinely receive around 10, 20, 30 emails every day at the TV address.  The chat room on a live show day contains 200-300 people.  I think part of the reason for this is because we’re the only game in town: no one else does what we do, at least not as often.

As I said in my lecture about atheist evangelism, practice is absolutely the key to getting good at any game.  Only by doing such a thing repeatedly can you identify what your opponents are going to bring against you regularly.  You can have lots of theory behind you about what should work, but having to spit out a sound-bite within five seconds of hearing a common apologetic tactic is something that requires experience.  It’s not that we AE members have an inherent advantage over other counter-apologists; we just do it more.

If Richard Dawkins, who is a pre-eminent scientist and the author of a best-selling book on atheism, isn’t good at debating atheism in person, then who is besides us?  There aren’t that many people.  I thought the Rational Response Squad did a fairly good job against the tag team of Comfort and Cameron.  Reginald Finley occasionally hosts debates, either covering the atheism side on his own, or inviting guests like Massimo Pigliucci to act as a champion.  I can’t think of a lot of others.

I hate to keep picking on Richard Dawkins, but here’s a relevant bit of information: he has said on multiple occasions that he won’t debate creationists.  That’s certainly his prerogative.  In the linked article you’ll see plenty of perfectly valid reasons why it’s a bad idea to debate creationists: It gives them the unwarranted appearance of credibility.  Free publicity.  A spoken debate emphasizes style over substance.  These debates are attended by a stacked and biased audience.  Etc.

Dawkins is in good company.  Stephen Jay Gould wouldn’t do it either, and Eugenie Scott wrote a very persuasive article on talkorigins.org, explaining why a scientist debating a creationist is like an unprepared team going up against the Harlem Globetrotters.  Not only do they lose the game, but they wind up looking stupid while making the opposition look good.

Yeah, that’s all well and good, but it’s simply not true that “the only winning strategy is not to play.”  If you don’t play, you don’t improve.  If you don’t improve, you can never win.  Then creationists get the upper hand anyway, because they get to crow about how “everyone is scared to debate me.”

Here’s a big problem: atheists and scientists who would be debaters have no infrastructure to back them up.  There are a lot of professional apologists, who practically have a job description of traveling around the country debating people.  William Lane Craig springs to mind.  Also, I heard that PZ Myers debated Kirk Durston over the weekend.  I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but the name of the opponent stood out for me because I’ve heard Durston debate before, years ago.  I wrote the report on it, in fact.  So Durston is a pro at this: he flies around the country, and wherever he goes, he debates people who are not professional apologists; they are local professors like Sahotra Sarkar.  Smart guys, yes, but they have day jobs and lives.  They don’t debate for a living.  Par for the course, I think.

People pay to fly William Lane Craig to a university as the champion in a debate.  It’s one of the perks of having an organization that people tithe to.  Nobody pays for regular travel for atheist champions.  They don’t offer speaker fees for a professional on the other side.

Note that I’m not necessarily saying that the Atheist Experience team are the right ones for the job.  I do think that any one of us would stack up well against most opponents.  I would love to debate Bill Dembski on the identity of the intelligent designer sometime, and I bet Matt would jump at the chance to go after Ray Comfort face-to-face.  On the other hand, the TV show offers a lot of home field advantages that we would have to do without in a live debate.  Stuff like having a hold button, for example.  Standing side by side with Ray Comfort, there is no opportunity to say “I’m sorry, you have repeated this bullshit three times now, I’m hanging up on you.”  Also, it’s certainly clear that the people whom we debate regularly are amateurs, often repeating arguments that they don’t really understand.

What I’m saying, though, is it doesn’t much matter who the professional atheist debater is; there needs to be one, and he or she needs practice on a regular basis.  And it would also be cool if there were occasional conferences with round table discussions and lectures on how to do this properly, as well as a team of diverse experts to offer serious post-mortem analysis of any debates that happen.

There are many advantages to having an established counter-apologist debater.  Local professors would not feel the pressure to do something they are bad at, thinking “If I don’t do this then no one will.”  The chosen spokesperson would get to do regular debates, which would help him or her improve and gain insight into the process which could then be passed along to others.  The spokesperson would also gain some notoriety and be a focal point for interviews for the atheist movement.  Apologists would probably jump at the chance to try and defeat this person — which effectively flips the usual equation of not wanting to grant creationists unwarranted credibility.  Atheists don’t have credibility in pop culture; theists do.  In science, the reverse is true; creationists are the outsiders.

Here’s the bottom line: it’s all too common for atheists to assume that the ridiculousness of religion should be apparent to everyone.  The facts should speak for themselves, we say.  Well, they don’t.  Facts don’t speak, people do.  Apologists use rhetorical tricks and live debates because it’s a good forum to gain media attention.  So what are we going to say — that we should abandon this medium to them?  Why?  Are atheists just inherently dumber than theists when it comes to style and charisma?  No, I don’t think so.  This is a shortcoming that needs to be corrected, and the time to start is now.