Paging Dr. Pander Hyperbole

Christianity is the most amazing thing ever. Or not.

In clearing my by-the-desk bookshelf of books I’d been using to complete On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, I came across Bart Ehrman’s excellent Jesus Interrupted again, which is still the standard book I recommend to anyone who wants to get up to speed on what the widest mainstream consensus is on the state of New Testament Studies (the ideal analog to The Bible Unearthed for Old Testament Studies). It’s definitely a book every atheist should own and have read (it has errors, but they are few).

I’ve been thumbing through all these books, re-checking my marginal notes to make sure I’m not overlooking anything before relocating them to more rarefied cubbies in my vast household array of bookshelves. Doing the same for Jesus Interrupted, I came across this, the very last line in the second to last chapter. Immediately one of those cartoon &?#$& thingies appeared above my head (as clearly it did the first time, since I see I wrote a pithy note in the margin after it):

The ultimate emergence of the Christian religion represents a human invention–in terms of its historical and cultural significance, arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.

Boing! Wha?

Are You Serious? (Davis Silverman Meme)








My note written below it:

What about democracy, science, philosophy, logic, [formal] mathematics, and human rights?

(Indeed, what about electricity or the internal combustion engine or the computer or the solar panel or the light bulb?)

You know. As for example.

That was obviously just off the top of my head, probably while kicking back on some couch somewhere. Revisiting the notion in just a few seconds, I thought of a few others I could have jotted in there (vaccination, birth control, radio, the satellite, women’s suffrage … &?#$&). Feel free to post your own list of “arguably the greatest inventions in the history of Western civilization [that are damn well more important than Christianity]” in comments here.

I’ve addressed the “Christianity saved the universe” baloney before, of course. In my chapter “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” in The Christian Delusion (pp. 396-420) and online in “Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy” (or human rights blah) and Christianity didn’t invent everything (see Flynn’s Pile of Boners) and the “Stirrup of Jesus” didn’t save Western civilization and whatnot (see Lynn White on Horse Stuff) and Jesus was not the greatest philosopher in history (he doesn’t even rank; see my summary On Musonius Rufus and Reply to McFall on Jesus as a Philosopher, in which Christianity supposedly invented feminism, too).

I don’t mean to pick on Ehrman. Or that book (it’s otherwise mostly great). And I’m not attributing all this nonsense to him. It’s just that at the end of the day, re-reading that remark just made my head spin. So I had to vent a bit…and remind people these kinds of remarks are really, really absurd. Like I said of something else in one of the above links: this is not nonsense on stilts…it’s nonsense on twirling rockets to the moon.

Debate in Alabama

On Saturday, February 9 (2013), I will be debating the proposition “Is the Christian Faith Reasonable?” with Dr. David Marshall at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The whole event will run from 6pm to 8pm, doors open at 5:30pm, and Dr. Marshall and I will be selling and signing our books in the lobby afterward. The debate will be held in the Chan Auditorium. For more details see the calendar page for UAH Non-Theists, the co-sponsors of the event with the campus group Ratio-Christi.

Prototypical Sexist Atheist on Exhibit

In response to my post Monday on Adam Lee’s petition against the harassment of prominent women in the atheist movement (see The Name for What’s Happening), someone posted a comment that demonstrates the very existence and nature of the problem. Indeed, almost so perfectly I’d think a feminist invented it as an ideal hypothetical example; but no, this is an actual post by an actual antifeminist atheist who actually believes (or wants you to believe) everything he wrote. I responded there, but it’s all so worth reading I’m reproducing it here, in it’s own blog post. Because I want everyone to be aware that this shit is going on.

The commenter (posting as “submariner“) wrote: [Read more…]

Atheism+ : The Name for What’s Happening

Adam Lee has launched a petition I hope all my godless readers will sign. In fact I hope you will encourage as many godless friends and colleagues as you can to sign, to show how many of us support women in our movement and oppose the abuse and harassment of them that is going on from a very vocal minority of appalling atheists. See Petition: Support Feminism and Diversity in the Secular Community for the full explanation and link, or go directly to the petition at The Leaders of Atheist, Skeptical and Secular Groups: Support Feminism and Diversity in the Secular Community.

Why is this needed? As Lee well puts it:

We, the undersigned, are atheists, skeptics and nonbelievers who value free speech and rational thought and who seek to build a strong, thriving movement that can advocate effectively for these values. We’ve chosen to put our names to this petition because we want to respond to a video created by a blogger calling himself Thunderfoot. In this video, Thunderfoot attacks named individuals who’ve been active in promoting diversity and fighting sexism and harassment in our movement. He describes these people as “whiners” and “ultra-PC professional victims” who are “dripp[ing] poison” into the secular community, and urges conference organizers to shun and ignore them.

We hold this and similar complaints from other individuals to be seriously misguided, false in their particulars and harmful to the atheist community as a whole, and we want to set the record straight. We wish to clarify that Thunderfoot and those like him don’t speak for us or represent us, and to state our unequivocal support for the following goals: We support making the atheist movement more diverse and inclusive. … We support strong, sensible anti-harassment policies at our gatherings. … We support the people in our community who’ve been the target of bullying, harassment and threats. … [And we want] to put a stop to this bad behavior once and for all [by] chang[ing] the culture of the atheist movement…

As of this posting, his petition is approaching 1700 signatories, and I want to see it go as high as possible, so we know how many atheists in our movement have our back, and how many of us these horrible bad apples of atheism are offending. I want to know how alone I am in this, or how supported I am. I want to see where our movement is going: their way, or ours.

Please go sign that petition now. Then come back to read on. Unless you are still not convinced you should bother. In that case read on first, and then see how you feel. [Read more…]

Digitally Appearing in Winnipeg

Nighttime skyline of the beautiful city of WinnipegIf you’re in or near Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada), you probably already know, but just in case not: tomorrow I’ll be doing a live Q&A via FaceTime and/or Skype for the Humanist Association of Manitoba, after they do a viewing of my latest Skepticon talk, Miracles and Historical Method. I’ve offered to field questions on all topics, though, not just that, although the organizers I’m sure will prioritize questions in line with the event.

This will take place at Canad Inns Polo Park (1405 St. Matthews Avenue) on Saturday 12 January (2013), from 4pm to 8:30pm, although I believe they handle organization business first before getting to the viewing and then the Q&A, so I might not be on screen until around 6 pm (local time), give or take. See the announcement and event details in the Winnipeg Free Press and HAM’s website.





Bayesian Atheism Even Lowder

Yesterday’s post inspired someone to point me to another gem in the same category: the ongoing work of Jeffery Jay Lowder at The Secular Outpost on Bayesian Arguments for Atheism and theism. He has a long archive on that topic there and continues to post on debates in religion analyzing them in Bayesian terms. Though his posts are generally at a moderate and not beginner’s level of difficulty, nevertheless a lot of valuable insight is there, and many examples of how to test and frame arguments in religious debates using Bayesian reasoning. Even when he’s wrong, you can learn a lot by thinking about how to articulate what you think his mistake is using the same Bayesian concepts.

Lowder has even assembled a getting-started bibliography of his best posts on how to frame and improve evidential arguments for naturalism using Bayes’ Theorem in his Index of Evidential Arguments for Atheism. This and the ongoing entries he adds on Bayesian reasoning in atheism are definite must-haves on any bookmark list for Bayesian atheism. Enjoy!

Bayesian Atheism

James Lindsay has been doing some great blogging on how to apply Bayesian reasoning to model John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith (or OTF). A while ago I asked for recommendations of bloggers that often write about Bayes’ Theorem for a general audience (see Bayesian Blogging), and a few came up there. This is another.

Cover of The Christian DelusionFormulating and extensively defending the OTF is Loftus’ greatest contribution to the philosophy of religion and atheism. His best and most thorough treatment appears as chapter four in The Christian Delusion (a book I always recommend anyway as it contains lots of great chapters by great authors; and two by me). He is writing a whole book on it now. It should be out this year (I’ve seen advanced drafts and it’s good; I’ll blog it when you can buy it). The OTF is featured at Iron Chariots (which provides examples of looser expressions of the concept throughout history) and Loftus discusses it often at Debunking Christianity.

The basic idea is that you can only have a rational faith if you test it by the same standards you apply to all other competing faiths; yet when you do that, your religion tests as false as the others, and the same reasons you use to reject those become equally valid reasons to reject yours. Though this idea has been voiced before, Loftus is the first to name it, rigorize it, and give it an extensive philosophical defense; moreover, by doing so, he is the first to cause a concerted apologetic to arise attempting to dodge it, to which he could then respond. The end result is one of the most effective and powerful arguments for atheism there is. It is, in effect, a covering argument that subsumes all other arguments for atheism into a common framework.

Cover of God Doesn't; We DoLindsay, meanwhile, is an expert mathematician and author of God Doesn’t; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges (2012). His blog of the same title treats a number of issues in support of that book and its argument. I don’t always agree with him. But his blogging on Bayes’ Theorem is great. He started by talking about how Loftus’ OTF can be formulated using Bayes’ Theorem, to show why it can’t be dodged the way Christian apologists want. This led to further blogging on the subject, including a Bayesian analysis of “faith” in general. It’s worth checking out.

The first of these (on which the others build) is:

Here much of his argument is backed formally by my Bayesian models in The End of Christianity (edited by Loftus) for Christianity as a religion (chapter two) and for the design argument generally (chapter twelve); where most of the math is in the endnotes but the Bayesian logic is made explicit in each. These chapters especially explain why the evidence has a much higher consequent probability (a higher “likelihood” in sci-speak) on naturalism than on any kind of theism (much less Christian theism).

Combine those with Lindsay’s post and you should get a clear understanding why atheism is true and Bayesian reasoning proves it. Lindsay’s treatment will be especially helpful in understanding how atheists think like Bayesians all the time even when they don’t know it (and how Christians, in contrast, are really awful Bayesians). I give other examples of Bayesian atheism near the end of my talk Bayes’ Theorem: Lust for Glory (which is still my best intro to BT for beginners), which can supplement all this.

Lindsay continued blogging under the tag “Math” and what’s there so far is all Bayes’ Theorem stuff. Maybe that won’t always be the case, but keeping tabs on that tagged subject going forward might lead you to more gems about Bayesian reasoning. So far there are three other posts:

  • A Bit More Clarity on Bayes’s Theorem and Loftus’s Outsider Test for Faith (which shows how a BT-formulated OTF forces believers to confront facts that plain descriptions of the OTF might not; in short, it’s the probability of the evidence, and not just the prior probability, that’s the problem, although the OTF shows both are a problem for any honest believer)
  • Continuing My Bayesian Argument–The Role of Evidence (where he defends the OTF against accusations that it would lead to weird conclusions in other domains, which a BT analysis shows is actually not true; although he incorrectly applies the term a priori here: the prior probability in the OTF is not a priori, but based on background evidence regarding the number of observed religious faiths; a priori knowledge is by definition not based on any such evidence, and in particular neither are a priori probabilities; for an actual example of the latter, see my note 8, pp. 406-07, in TEC)
  • Defining Faith via Bayesian Reasoning (which builds a Bayesian definition of faith, when faith is used in any sense other than as a synonym of belief; this also provides an example of how many of Loftus’ rebuttals of critics of the OTF can be framed in Bayesian terms to show why he is right and they are not)

Good stuff so far. So I’m adding this to my list of Bayesian bloggers worth keeping an eye on. Another to add is Jeff Lowder.

I’m Back, Now Help Ed Brayton!

I know fans will want to hear my news, but I want you to give someone else a hand, it’s way more important, so please read on.

Yesterday I finished the principal draft of On the Historicity of Jesus Christ. Today I’m taking a trip to the library to double check some essentials, and that will continue for some weeks. But this book is twice as long as Proving History, so to jump start it in the pipeline, I’ll begin the peer review, submission, and production process next week. The book could go to press even in its current state (it’s a polished and complete manuscript). I just want to make sure every i is dotted and every t is crossed, so now I begin clearing through my “check this to be sure” pile of books and articles.

Picture of Ed Brayton and FTB bioI was so close to getting to that point that I have been doing nothing but writing, nosing the grindstone, for the last three weeks and neglecting the outside world, including my blog and email. When I swam back to the surface I found that (as many of you may already know; I’m way behind) Ed Brayton, one of the founders of the Freethought Blogs network and a great blogger on American law and politics from an atheist perspective that I read regularly here (Dispatches from the Culture Wars), had a severe emergency leading to open heart surgery.

Ed’s in good condition, but as we all know, medical insurance doesn’t really pay your medical bills (much less your lost wages), it just “softens the blow” so to speak. If you have anything to spare and want to help out someone who does good work informing the community and who was instrumental in creating and running this blog network, head on over and put something in his tip jar, or even just subscribe to his blog (the plan is to let you view it from then on without any annoying ads, but I don’t know if that’s been implemented yet or if it can be done; for now it’s just to show continuing support for a blogger you like).

See How You Can Help on how to help, and to read more about what happened see Ed’s Not So Excellent Adventure and Merry Christmas.

And welcome all to the new year! We all survived the collision with Nibiru, I think partly due to the galactic realignment canceling it out. Or it hit Jesus on his way to kill us. Two birds, you know. Anyway, whew. That was a close one.