Containing Atheism, In Saudi Arabia

There’s a piece decrying atheists—
“Contain them!” it opines—
But it’s quite a different story
If you read between the lines…

There’s a very strange article in the Saudi Gazette. On the face of it, atheism is a problem which must be contained:

A number of academics and experts have underlined the need for serious efforts to contain atheism in the Kingdom. Claiming that there is a link between the spread of atheism and extreme religious views, the experts said a moderate image of Islam must be promoted and any doubts youths may have about religion must be addressed in a convincing manner, Al-Madinah Arabic daily reported.

Yes, there is a connection between atheism and extreme religious views, therefore we must do our best to limit… atheism.

Now, I’d have thought extreme religion leads to atheism, but of course I’d be wrong:

Ghazi Al-Maghlouth, professor of Islamic culture at Al-Ahsa University’s Faculty of Shariah, said atheism is not at all linked with religious discourse. It is purely related to the personality of individuals who have some confusion about certain religious doctrines, in addition to having a skeptical mind. They always search for mysteries behind anything and everything and ask questions for which there may not be any clear-cut answers,” he said.

Yes. They have some confusion over questions for which there may not be any clear-cut answers. THis sounds less like “confusion” and more like “understanding”.

According to Al-Maghlouth, even in China, there are three major religions — Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, in addition to atheism. He said that atheism is present in every society in varying degrees. Al-Maghlouth specially referred to the controversial book by the Egyptian philosopher Abdul Rahman Badawi, titled “A history of atheism in Islam.”

In the book, Badawi explains how several Muslim philosopher-scientists and students of the medieval period questioned and often refuted some basic Islamic tenets and eventually became atheists.

So… wait. This article is saying this is a bad thing? That we must prevent people from refuting basic (and clearly refutable) Islamic tenets?

Al-Maghlouth said the media played a great role in promoting atheism in the modern world. “Before the high-tech media revolution, there were atheist tendencies but they did not receive any significant attention. Now, even small atheist elements are receiving wide publicity,” he said while adding that people who are engaged in their own reading and writing are more prone to atheism.

Do you sense the trend I do? Insult atheists by comparing them to philosopher-scientists, people engaged in their own reading and writing, skeptical thinkers regarding questions which have no clear-cut answers?

Oh, I’m not saying the whole article leans that direction. Here’s the closing:

“The fundamental principles of our religion are sublime and candid and they can be easily understood by every man and woman regardless of age. The basic thing is that scholars and preachers have to impart them to the younger generation in a convincing way, without creating confusion and skepticism,” he said.

But for an article nominally against atheism, this is more favorable treatment than we can expect. What’s next, an article–in Saudi Arabia–openly praising atheism?

Yeah, no, I won’t hold my breath.

Conversation With A Christian…

So… I had a long talk yesterday with someone. It was a ranging conversation, in which we touched on some issues near and dear to FtB readers (I doubt, though, that this person knows FtB exists). He lives in Texas, so one topic was what an idiot Rick Perry is, and republican politicians in general. He was at a loss to explain how any poor person (or any thinking person) could ever vote Republican, other than manipulation of religious views and tribalism….

Which led to a discussion of the republican and tea-party views on creationism and evolution—he offered that no one he knew was a short-earth creationist, but did think that people who thought evolution was “how god did it” were clearly a sort of creationist themselves, and misunderstanding important aspects of the theory. And anyone who thinks humans are special creations “clearly didn’t have a good comparative anatomy class”.

He’d been reading about the writing of the constitution—not Barton (he’d never heard of David Barton, and was appalled at the blatant attempt to influence lawmakers with disinformation), but Waldman’s “Founding Faith”, and when I told him of Chris Rodda’s takedowns of Barton, he put that on his list. He has faced up against people who want prayer in school, and found that the moment he starts talking details—which faith gets to pray on which days, for instance—the demands start to wither and die before he even has to tell them “no”. He knows of, and approves of, the Jefferson bible.

Seems to me there was quite a lot more in this conversation—it was nearly 2 hours—but I can’t think of it at the moment.

Oh, yeah, there was one other topic. He’s on three committees for his church, including the search for a new pastor—the current one is retiring. He’s a very active lifelong believer, and as knowledgeable about the history of the writing of the bible as he is about, say, first amendment school prayer cases, or evolution. He has read not only quite a bit of sophisticated theology and apologetics, but quiet a bit of critical history as well. Frankly, I’ve heard him argue against religious positions far more often than for them (he argues the position supported by evidence, and more often the religious view was being argued out of ignorance).

But he is a Christian, and in his experience more Christians are like him than like the stereotypical yahoos like Rick Perry. I am at a bit of a loss to understand why he is a Christian, but he certainly is one. And I don’t know whether his observation—that he is a more typical Christian—is at all true. (His brother, for instance, is a biblical literalist.)

Sorry, no point here, just thinking out loud…

Yet Another Case Of Ignorance = God

Science looks for laws by which
The real world is constrained
But, gee willikers—free will occurs,
Which physics can’t explain!

So… physics must be incomplete;
A reasonable conclusion—
Of course, there is another one:
Free will is an illusion.

A writer over at The Daily Paul (don’t laugh!–their motto is “Peace, Gold, Love”) demonstrates the problem of “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. And a pet peeve of mine along the way.

I don’t claim any special aptitude or deep understanding of the popular level physics I read, but I was well on my way to adopting the atheist position as my default simply because God was not mentioned as anything intellectually serious anywhere in my searching. To me God was just a made up person, and had no explanatory value.

I never heard of any logical or intellectual arguments for God’s existence, and never knew such a thing existed. There is just no information on that kind of thing available to a regular, non religious child. Public education, popular media, television, science books, all more or less assume atheism.

I was a comfortable atheist for over 15 years, not giving it much thought as a controversial matter, and simply enriching and coloring in my atheism with reading on biology, evolution, and science.

I spent my time and mental energy exploring every other area of contention and controversy — my true passion — and especially political and historical controversy, with a free open mind and the strongest stomach for unpalatable Truth I’ve ever come across.

A simple understanding of popular level physical sciences… and an unquestioned belief in a free mind. Really, it was only a matter of time until one or the other had to go. And since his passion was political (and, given where he’s writing, we can assume Libertarian), the notion that his own thinking was constrained by the same laws that describe the rest of the universe was inconceivable.

You can never know, so you have to either accept God as the ultimate answer, or else maintain a posture of permanent skepticism, and bear all the heavy weight of that skepticism your whole life, holding off all the temptations and comforts offered by a final answer, and the peace it brings.

I accepted that some people throw in the towel earlier than others and that atheism was a privilege of the few, requiring intellectual strength and hardiness.

But finally I actually started listening the the strongest proponents of theism and their strongest arguments, and realized that the matter is far from settled, and that there are powerful philosophical arguments for God, and also powerful defeaters for belief in naturalism, not least of which was the requirement that you adopt a total skepticism of all our reasoning and thinking faculties on a belief system where the mind is formed haphazardly for survival.

And since he feels he has a free, functional, and rational mind, clearly physics and biology cannot be trusted. Free will as a gateway drug to theism.

The thing is, all too many who look to science, for matters of religion or mind, are looking at the wrong sciences. Yes, there is a lot of pseudoscience under the big tent that is psychology, but the areas of sensation & perception, memory, and learning are where we can find that just because our thinking feels free, that doesn’t mean that it is. Turns out, the stuff between our ears does act the same way the rest of the universe does. No magic, either free-will or god, needed to intervene.

Unknown Unknowns And Atheism

You atheist types are an obstinate sort
You could choose to believe, but you won’t
You say there’s no god in the world we can see…
Ah, but what of the world that we don’t?

What percent of reality really is known;
What percent have we left to divine?
With an unknown infinity left to explore
Who says your view is better than mine?

I choose to believe in the things we can’t see
In the not-yet-discovered reality
With no data at all, I still choose to believe
That there’s something transcending mortality

I won’t limit myself to observable facts
I won’t bow to the mere scientific
While the views I’ll admit are remarkably vague
My religion is very specific.

My God thinks as I do; what’s right and what’s wrong
His will is as clear as can be
You atheists want to know why I believe?
It’s all there… in the things we can’t see.

So at my previous post, I got a comment:

There is an important question which needs to be asked here.

How many percent of reality do you know?

How many percent of all the parallel universes?

How can you consider it unlikely that there might exist entities somewhere else who are so wonderful and powerful that they cannot be comprehended by a human mind?

I’ve never read or heard convincing answers from self-proclaimed Skeptics.

Kind regards from Europe.

It linked, by the way, to a post which approvingly linked to a very poor argument attempting to shift the burden of proof onto atheists by narrowly defining atheism (in a manner which few atheists actually agree with–I, for one, much prefer a privative definition) and by conflating knowledge and belief (thus arguing for agnosticism as an alternative to atheism, rather than as orthogonal concepts).

But, yeah, it always seemed odd to me to play the “there’s so much we don’t know” card against atheists. There’s a quote, attributed to Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Josh Billings (with a variant attributed to Ronald Reagan), “it’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble, it’s what we do know that just ain’t so.” To claim that the vast amount of the universe we do not know may hide something akin to a god, flies in the face of the claims of religions, who are awfully specific about the attributes and adventures of their gods. It’s not that some god might exist in a parallel universe, it’s that they lived atop Mt. Olympus. It’s not that some hidden corner of a far-off galaxy might have time-traveling magicians, it’s that one was born to a virgin in Bethlehem. It’s not that maybe on some distant star there are levitating humanoids, it’s that one ascended to heaven from a rock in Jerusalem.

Atheists are not discounting the possibility of unknown things occurring in unknown places. We don’t have to. These events and places are unknown. No one is making a positive claim that needs to be evaluated. There is nothing to deny, nothing even to comment on. But that has little or nothing to do with the actual and specific claims of religion. If, tomorrow, a time/space traveling alien materialized at, say, MIT, and provided evidence (the alien equivalent of DNA, and demonstrations of technology) of something “wonderful and powerful”, then A) skeptics would evaluate the evidence and (assuming it is sound) conclude that their world had just been expanded beyond their previously wildest beliefs, and B) it would not provide the slightest bit of evidence for any of the world’s religions.

And if, by some extraordinary chance, it turns out that this alien provided hard evidence that its alien race was behind the miracles of the bible, that they had actually occurred just as written, and that some version of Christianity (not all of them; they disagree with one another) was absolutely true… then skeptics and atheists would largely say “well, damn, I was wrong.” But that extraordinary evidence would not change the fact that, up until that evidence was provided, there was no reason at all to suspect it ever would be.

And right now, that alien has not visited, and right now, the existence of unknown mysteries in unknown corners of the universe is not, in the slightest, an argument in favor of any religion.

This Bullshit Is Brought To You By The Letter “A”

A is for Alligator—look at that bite!
A is Albino—he’s totally white
A, Acupuncture; let’s poke him with pins
A, Anecdotal; the evidence spins
A is for Alt-Med, which doesn’t do shit…
A is for Asshole: I hope she gets bit.

Via the Beeb, a story (with video I can’t embed here, but he’s a cute little guy) of an albino alligator being treated with acupuncture at a Brazilian zoo. And for the record the “asshole” in the last line is me–if I am objecting to an alligator getting its jaw taped shut and pins stuck all down its backside (which you’re damn right I’m objecting to), it is a bit of an asshole move to cheer on the hypothetical alligator-bite injury of someone who is just (sincerely, I believe) trying to help.

The acupuncturist is not evil; she thinks she’s helping. The evidence strongly suggests that there is nothing beyond a placebo effect in acupuncture (or an expectancy effect in the case of animal acupuncture). It’s not easy to have double blind acupuncture, but the most methodologically sound studies I have seen have shown no difference between the “real” and control conditions (whether sham needles or wrong needle placement). My favorite report of this, though, came from an alternative magazine my sister sent me–it claimed that not only did acupuncture work, but so did sham acupuncture! (In other words, there is a significant placebo effect–and placebo is much different from “no effect”–but nothing beyond that.)

So I am not really angry with the acupuncturist. She’s trying to help. It’s the superstructure of alt-med pseudoscience that allows people to poke with needles, give sugar pills or distilled water, wave their hands vaguely, or think happy thoughts, and think they are helping. “But it can’t hurt–anything is better than nothing!”, I have heard… but there are people foregoing real cancer treatments (with their nasty side effects because the medicine is actually doing something) to gamble their lives on this institutionalized fraud.

Technology VS Superstition

All the aliens and angels, all the monsters that we feared,
All the things that made you scared to be alone
All the poltergeists and angels, why, it seems they’ve disappeared…
Ever since they put a camera in the phone

I could credit XKCD, but Randall is hardly the first to notice.

(on the other hand, the rise in easily available technology must also be blamed for the increase in “ghost hunter” shows on basic cable, so maybe it’s a wash.)

Too Good To Be True

This is Bob, from Widget Industries—I work in personnel—
I’m just checking up on references for one Ignatius Shell,
Who assures us, as his manager, you really knew him well
So I’m hoping you can help us out a bit.
Yes, I’m looking at his resume, and he looks like quite a catch
Since it seems he built your company, and pretty much from scratch
You’d have bit the dust without him, so we’re hoping he’s a match
His experience implies he’ll really fit.

Now, there’s something I remember… just a minute… here we are:
How he saved the boss’s son, who’d been run over by a car,
When he lifted up the vehicle, then gave him CPR,
And a method he’d developed by himself!
When the papers heard the story, how he lifted up that Ford
And they offered him a medal, a parade, and a reward,
He refused it—every penny—‘cept a photo he adored
Of the rescued kid—he keeps it on his shelf

Did he really lead the office in their summer softball games?
Cos it isn’t in his letter (he would never make such claims)
But his fellow workers wrote it (though they would not give their names)
And it seems like such an “Iggy” thing to do.
This is mostly a formality—there isn’t any doubt
Shell’s the sort of dream employee that you only read about
So we’re hoping you’ll confirm that he’s too good to do without
Cos he really seems too perfect to be true

Via CNN, a story that sounds too good to be true–a company that, for a fee, will lie about your past.

“We can replace a supervisor with a fictitious one, alter your work history, provide you with a positive employment reputation, and give you the glowing reference that you need,” Paladin’s website states.

Mind you, there is some question as to whether the story itself (let alone the enthusiastic recommendations) is true:

The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota said it had never heard of Paladin Deception Services and will be “keeping an eye on them going forward.” The company isn’t registered in the state of Minnesota. Green claims it is registered in China instead and he declined to share any tax forms to prove the company’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, Facebook pulled Paladin’s ads from its site in May because it deemed the company inappropriate and misleading.

I am reminded that a post-rapture pet-sitting service that seemed too good to be true… was in fact, too good to be true. So this service may or may not turn out to be real.

Meanwhile, it could be fun, coming up with bogus items for a resume. I know I get called only very rarely to check up on recommendations I write. Maybe I should start claiming that my students are even more remarkable than they are…

On Origins

The atheists, in arrogance, say man evolved from slime
From nothingness to everything, and all you need is time
With no one there to witness it, they simply cannot know
The truth is, they are idiots… the bible tells me so.

I may not know my science, but I know my holy book
It’s got all the truthful answers there; you simply have to look
Its authors took dictation from Almighty God Himself
That’s a sample of omniscience you’ve got sitting on your shelf.

The bible is, we all agree, God’s perfect, holy word
The scholars say it’s error-free; it’s what the ancients heard
With no one there to witness it, they simply cannot know
But you can trust the bible’s word… the bible tells me so.

[Read more...]

Olympic Placebos

The reality’s hard to escape:
It’s just sticky and bright-colored crepe.
It’s absurd, or it’s funny;
It’s made lots of money—
The placebo, Kinesio Tape

Just a few observations, prompted by a post on NPR’s Health Blog and by my observations of the US Olympic trials.

That brightly colored tape adorning the shoulders, legs, and abs of so many Olympians… oh, hell, I’ll say it–it’s a placebo. The NPR piece implies it, but won’t go out on that limb. There is plenty of profit motive behind the tape–which, of course, means that there would be all the more reason for them to highly publicize the research that proves it is more than placebo… and what we get instead are endorsements by athletes.

We’ve seen this before, of course, with various bracelets, with copper, or holograms, or magnets (actually, only click on those if you really doubt that they exist–these snake-oil sales-weasels don’t need you to give them hits. Search for the terms instead, and add “double-blind” to your search terms, and a vastly different story emerges). At the US trials, I saw another placebo, the “cold laser“, which also has tons of accolades and endorsements, but no double-blind experimental support. At the US trials, a behind-the-scenes peek showed us a “laser”(to my eye, it looked like a set of LEDs) being used while the athlete’s warmup suit was still on–I want to see the data on how much light penetrated the suit, let alone any significant layers of skin. The claims, though, were far-reaching, in terms of how much this treatment could balance the athlete’s energies, etc. etc. etc.

Thing is… The better an athlete is, the more chance they have to superstitiously associate some arbitrary event or object with competitive success. The thing about Olympians is, they tend to win (at least in the qualifying meets–otherwise they would not be Olympians). If every member of the trial squad was wearing their secret super-spy decoder ring, the winner is the one who gets to say it contributed to her or his success. (For one of the best presentations of the science here, see Stuart Vyse’s book “Believing in Magic: the Psychology of Superstition”)

Ah,but… the other thing is… even when some pre-performance ritual is superstitious, it can have very real effects on performance. “Placebo” is not at all the same as “no effect”. I would rather my favorite athletes be aware that their success is their own, and not the result of some bracelet, light, tape, or intercessory prayer. But I know my favorite athletes are human, and, as humans, are apt to be influenced by superstitious conditioning. It’s not foolish, it’s perfectly understandable… it’s just wrong.

21 Burned, In Clear Lack Of Faith

All the misses and the misters
Who walked barefoot over coals
And whose tootsies got some blisters
In defiance of their goals
Will be told they lacked conviction
Or they’d overcome the heat—
It’s a victim-blaming fiction,
And a scam that can’t be beat

You can pay a lot of money
To achieve a state of mind
But it’s still a little funny
(Though, in truth, a bit unkind)
That a walk across some fire
Had a lesson to be learned…
Have a care whom you admire;
Trust a fraud, and you’ll get burned [Read more...]