Election Snippet: Sarah Palin’s Witch- Hunting, Demon- Believing Church

Palin church
Today’s election snippet is about Sarah Palin… and the religious beliefs of her church. Which encompass beliefs in, among other things, witchcraft, demonic possession, the idea that certain geographical locations are demonic strongholds, the regeneration of limbs by faith healing (take that, all you Why Won’t God Heal Amputees heathens!), the imminent end of the world, and the belief that the Holy Spirit can be transmitted by cel phone.

No, really.

And that is training a Christian army to take over the United States and the world.

I’m going to be bringing up Palin a lot in these election snippets. Partly because she’s such an easy target… but mostly because the prospect of her as President of the United States is both terrifying and terrifyingly plausible. If John McCain is elected, a conservative actuarial estimate gives him a 1 in 3 chance of dying in office. And that’s not even taking into account either his history of cancer or the excessive stress of being President.

And before you ask… no, I don’t think it’s bigoted to question the religious beliefs of a political candidate. We’re supposed to judge people on the content of their character… and what people believe, and how they act on those beliefs, is a major part of that character.

A vote for McCain is very likely a vote for Palin. Please watch this video, and decide if you want to vote for Palin.

Video found via the Huffington Post, which has a good, thorough article on the subject of Palin’s extremist church. Video below the fold, since putting it above the fold mucks up my archives.

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What Convinced You? A Survey for Non-Believers

Change your mind
If you’re a non-believer in religion, and you used to be a believer — what changed your mind?

Was there one particular argument or incident or experience? Or was it more of a general softening of the ground, with lots of different factors adding up?

And have you ever convinced a believer, or helped to convince a believer, that they were mistaken? If so, what was it you said or did that convinced them?

I’m asking because of a recent comment in this blog. In response to my Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God post, Nine commented:

I am often confronted with impatience when I begin to use the words “logic,” “reason,” and “evidence.” Theists argue, “you can’t use reason to explain everything, particularly God!” It’s senseless. It’s so senseless, I am often struck speechless by its senselessness. Lately, however, I stumbled upon this quote:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” –Galileo Gailiei

I feel like I have something to go on now, but how do you respond to this rejection of logic and reason in general?

A fair question, and one that in recent weeks has been much on my mind. How do you debate, or try to convince, or in any way engage in fruitful discussion, with someone who doesn’t value reason and evidence and doesn’t find them convincing?

Brain_with_symbols
My usual response is to point out the limitations of irrational intuition; to acknowledge its importance in human experience, but point out that it’s really only valid for matters of opinion and subjective experience, and that logic and evidence are demonstrably better tools for understanding questions of what is or is not objectively true in the real world. (Questions such as — oh, I don’t know, just for one example — God’s existence or lack thereof.)

In other words, when a theist says “you can’t use reason to explain everything, particularly God!”, my response is, “Why not? We use reason and evidence to explain everything else about what is and isn’t true in the real world. Why shouldn’t God be included?” (With the possible addendum that, “The only reason you think your faith shouldn’t have to be supported by reason or evidence is that… well, that it isn’t supported by reason or evidence.” A topic for another day.)

You can't change my mind
But of course, this point is itself an argument based on reason and evidence. And therefore, it’s not likely to convince someone who already thinks reason and evidence don’t prove anything. And Nine is right — it is completely frustrating to debate someone who knows their belief isn’t rational and just doesn’t care. (Almost as frustrating as it is to debate a believer who’s convinced that their belief really is rational.) I’ve written about this before: religion has at its disposal a large number of powerful defensive tropes, defending it not just against criticism but against the very idea that criticism is legitimate, with circular reasoning that’s very aggravating to an outsider but that at the same time makes it stubbornly resistant to change.

And yet…

Most atheists and other non-believers were, at one time, religious believers.

Including me.

And we got over it.

How did that happen?

Armor
How did our armor get penetrated? How did it happen that our rationalizations — either convincing ourselves that we were being reasonable, or that it didn’t matter that we weren’t being reasonable — became visible to us, and no longer acceptable?

One of the reasons I so stubbornly persist in making argument after argument against religion — apart from the fact that I’m having barrels of fun with it — is that I was myself persuaded to abandon my religious beliefs by good, rational arguments. Or at least, I was persuaded to seriously question my religious beliefs by good, rational arguments. So I know that, at least sometimes, it can work. And while I don’t know if my own arguments and debates have ever convinced any particular person I was debating with, I have heard people say — about both my blog and other atheist blogs — that being a lurker on the sidelines of these debates has made them rethink their own beliefs.

So I guess this is my market research, my focus group. I want to know what works and what doesn’t.

So I’ll ask again: If you’re a non-believer in religion, and you used to be a believer — what changed your mind?

And if you’ve ever convinced a believer, or helped to convince a believer, that they were mistaken, what was it you said or did that convinced them?

Skeptical inquirer
I’ll get the ball rolling. For me, letting go of my belief in the supernatural was a long process. But it started when, almost by accident, I started reading Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I’d seen arguments against spiritual beliefs before — I was a religion major, for Loki’s sake. But the fact that the S.I. folks took spiritual beliefs and subjected them, not only to argument and logic, but to rigorous, carefully controlled, scientific testing… that was a big deal.

It’s not that they disproved any particular strong belief of mine. I didn’t believe in astrology, or faith healing, or hardly any of the specific beliefs they putting to the test. But their work took religious belief out of the realm of “things you can never be sure about one way or the other, so it’s therefore okay to believe whatever seems to make sense to you” — and put it squarely in the realm of “things that are either true or not true.” And it gave me tools for critical thinking as well: a better idea of what did and didn’t constitute a good argument, and an increasingly improved nose for bullshit.

And it did it over, and over, and over again. Calmly, and reasonably, and relentlessly.

Bell brain cut
So there was no one argument that de-converted me. But there was definitely a body of argument that softened the ground, made my belief a lot less deep and a lot less certain. And so when I had my big Your Consciousness Is A Product Of Your Brain experience — in my case, going under general anesthesia — I had a whole new context to put the experience in. A context that was a lot more consistent than my spiritual beliefs… and that didn’t require any of the rationalization and evasion and flinching away from the evidence that I’d been doing to support those beliefs.

(This is a fairly quickie summary, btw. If you’re curious and want to read about my deconversion in more detail, you can do so in my How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist series.)

So I think this is why I’m so attached to making and pursuing atheist arguments. I don’t know if any one atheist can persuade any one believer during any one argument. But I know that lots of atheists making lots of arguments over a period of time can, at the very least, make a dent. And for me, the very fact of religion and spirituality being explored as questions of fact that can be rationally debated and supported or contradicted by evidence… that made a huge difference.

But that’s just what worked for me.

And so now I’m back to my question:

What worked for you?

If you’re a non-believer in religion, and you used to be a believer — what changed your mind?

And if you’ve ever convinced a believer, or helped to convince a believer, that they were mistaken, what was it you said or did that convinced them?

And if any of my arguments helped any of you change your mind and let go of your religious beliefs… please, for the love of all that is beautiful in this world, will you tell me what they were? I’m dying to know.

Election Snippet: “John McCain’s Ads Are Lies”

When I was doing my recent series on John McCain and Sarah Palin, I dug up a ton of fascinating videos and other tidbits. I linked to many of them in my posts… but I realize that these three posts were pretty serious linkapaloozas, and I didn’t expect anyone to actually click on them all. (I was almost tempted to have one of my links be to Eros Blog or Cute Overload, just to see if anyone was checking…)

But some of them really deserve attention. And given how strongly I feel about this election, I feel like I should be doing more about it, especially now that it’s drawing near. So from now until election day, every day that I blog about something other than the election, I’m going to provide an Election Snippet: an election- related video, or link, that I think y’all might be interested in.

Here’s the first one — a video evisceration of the distortions, misrepresentations, and flat-out lies of the McCain campaign ads. Video below the fold, since putting it above the fold mucks up my archives. Enjoy!

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Why I DO Care About John McCain’s Gay Chief Of Staff: The Blowfish Blog

Mccain1
I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about the recent revelations that John McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Buse, is gay…. and why I think this is relevant and important.

It’s titled Why I DO Care About John McCain’s Gay Chief Of Staff, and here’s the teaser:

First, in case you haven’t seen the story yet: John McCain’s Chief of Staff, Mark Buse, is gay.

With a reported penchant for multiple partners, and a sling in his home to boot. (In, of all places, his closet. Sometimes the irony is just too obvious.) The story broke on the BlogActive site of the legendary Mike Rogers, who has given Buse the not so coveted Roy Cohn award “for working against the interests of the lesbian and gay community while living as a gay man.” And it’s corroborated by Michelangelo Signorile.

And I do, in fact, care. But I don’t care about Buse per se, or his ex life, or what it says about him and his character.

I care about what it says about McCain.

Because the point of this story is not, “McCain’s Chief of Staff is gay.”

The point is about McCain. It’s about McCain’s hypocrisy, and lack of integrity, and willingness to suck up to the hatefully homophobic far-right wing of the Republican party — in direct contradiction to what seem to be his own personal beliefs.

To find out more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

John McCain and the “Maverick” Snow Job

Of all the things that terrify me about John McCain and his Presidential campaign, one of the worst is this:

Maverick
The way so many moderates and liberals talk about what a “maverick” he is.

“I may not agree with him on all the issues,” the trope goes. “But I admire his independence. He’s not just a puppet of the Republican party. He’s a real maverick, a straight talker with a good head on his shoulders, who’s willing to buck the system and who cares about the little guy.” (I’m ashamed to say that I bought this line myself, back in 2000 when McCain was running against G.W. Bush. I certainly wasn’t planning to vote for him, but I thought, “If he gets the GOP nomination, we could do worse.”)

But on closer examination — and not even that much closer, really — this turns out to be total bullshit.

John McCain’s “maverick” schtick — the “independent straight- shooter who’ll buck the system and fight for the little guy” schtick — is, IMO, one of the most successful snow jobs in the history of American politics.

And it terrifies me to see how effectively it’s spread. It terrifies me to think that people who would despise McCain’s policies and actions might still vote for the man because they see him as a straight- talking, independent maverick.

So today, I’m going to do my best to grind this snow job into dust.

Mccain_bush
Would an “independent maverick” say that, ”on the transcendent issues of the day, the most important issues of the day, I have been totally in agreement and support of” the sitting President and leader of his political party?

Would an “independent maverick” vote with that sitting President — the completely disastrous sitting President — 100% of the time in 2008, and 95% of the time in 2007?

(Quick aside: True, this wasn’t always the case: his alignment with Bush and the Republican party has been somewhat lower in the past. But what does that tell you? That he’s willing to go against the GOP party line… unless he’s running for President? What does that tell you about what kind of President he’ll be?)

Sarah palin
Would an “independent maverick” fail to nominate either of his two top choices for Vice- President — and instead nominate a far- right- tip- of- the- right- wing extremist wackaloon with virtually no experience, who thinks dinosaurs and people lived at the same time and believes the war in Iraq is part of God’s plan — because the two guys he really wanted were pro-choice, and the party wouldn’t stand for it?

Would a “straight- talking maverick” speak out against torture, and yet repeatedly support policies that enable it? Especially someone who was a torture survivor himself?

Would a “straight- talking maverick” who’s “bucking the system” speak out against anti-regulation lobbyists who were a primary cause of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac crisis… and yet hire those same lobbyists to be part of his campaign? Including as his actual campaign manager?

Would a “straight- talking maverick” send out invalid absentee ballots to voters likely to support his opponent?

Africa percentage of adult population with HIV-AIDS
Would a “straight- talking maverick” dodge questions about AIDS prevention and condom distribution in Africa, by claiming that “I’ve never gotten into these issues before”? (Or worse: Would a “straight shooter who fights for the little guy” who’s been in Congress since 1982 genuinely have never thought about the issues of AIDS and international AIDS prevention?)

Would a “straight- talking maverick” try to weasel out of a debate with his intelligent, charismatic, wildly popular, extraordinary public speaker opponent, on the grounds that the economy is in crisis — a crisis that’s been in process for weeks and months, a crisis created by seven years of his party’s failed economic policies which he himself supported — and he has to pull an all-nighter?

Would a “straight- talking maverick” flip-flop, repeatedly, on dozens and dozens of issues, from the drilling moratorium to warrantless wiretapping to abortion and the repeal of Roe V. Wade… repeatedly changing his mind to get it more in line with that of the Republican Party?

And would a “straight- talking maverick” flat out lie? And lie, and lie, and lie and lie and lie?

Liar liar
Lie about his opponent wanting to teach sex ed to kindergartners? Lie about his opponent suggesting that we bomb Pakistan? Lie about his own support from veteran’s organizations? Lie about how many people turned out for his campaign rallies? Lie about his opponent’s tax plan — and do it again, and again, and again and again and again? Lie, even, about what a “tracking lies about politics” fact-checking site did and did not say about his opponent?

Lie so badly, and so often, that even Fox News and Karl Rove called him a liar? Lie so much that lying has become one of the chief hallmarks of his campaign?

I get that all politicians distort and conceal and spin the truth. (Or most of them, anyway.) But there’s a difference — a subtle one, but an important one — between distorting and concealing and spinning… and flat-out, outright, pants- on- fire, lie- like- a dog lying. And the latter is exactly what Mr. Straight Talk has been up to… again and again and again.

And perhaps more to the point: Not all politicians set themselves up as being different from all other politicians. Not all politicians push an image of themselves as straight-talking mavericks who are bucking the political system.

I could have gone on for many more pages. And I’m not even doing a thorough evisceration of his policies. (Partly because the flip-flopping has made it hard to know what the hell they are.) All I’m talking about here is the “maverick” line.

Which has proven to be one of the biggest and best snow jobs in the history of American politics.

And that’s saying something.

Shane
You want a straight- talking independent maverick who bucks the system and cares about the little guy? Go rent “Shane.” You want a weaselly, right- wing liar? You want someone who was always a pretty hard-core conservative and whose narrative arc of his Presidential campaign has been one of consistent capitulation to his party — the party responsible for this country’s worst economic and foreign policy disasters in decades? You want someone so desperate to become President that he’ll abandon whatever principles he once might have had in order to make it happen? Then by all means, vote for John McCain.

Shout-outs to Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Pandagon, and The Huffington Post, which is where I found a lot of this info.

Blind Men and Elephants: Religion, Science, and Understanding Big Complicated Things

Is there a good reason that different religious believers disagree so much about God? Could it just be that God is very large and complex and difficult to perceive, so naturally different people don’t all perceive him the same way?

BlindCould religion be like the fable of the blind men and the elephant — where everyone’s perceiving a different part of God, but they’re all still perceiving the same real thing?

You’ve probably heard this fable before. There are different versions, but the basics are these: Six blind men are standing around an elephant, touching it to figure out what an elephant is. The one touching the trunk decides that an elephant is a big snake; the one touching its leg decides an elephant is a tree; the one touching its tail decides an elephant is a rope; etc. It’s supposed to show the limitations of individual perception, and the importance of not being narrow-minded, and how people with different beliefs can all be right. Or all be wrong. You get the gist.

Religious symbols
It was recently suggested in this blog that this fable makes a good metaphor for religion. God is too large (it was suggested), too complex, too multi-faceted, for any one person to perceive correctly. Therefore, Reason #2 in my Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God — the inconsistency of world religions — isn’t a fair critique. The fact that Muslims see God one way and Catholics another, and Hindus yet another, and Jews, and Neo-Pagans, and Taoists, and Rastafarians, and Episcopalians, and so on — in ways that are radically different, even contradictory — it’s just different people perceiving different parts of the elephant.

But I don’t actually think this fable makes a good metaphor for religion.

It does, however, make an excellent metaphor for science.

Or rather, it could.

Blind_men_and_elephant4
Here’s the thing. In some versions of the elephant fable, the blind men groping the elephant just fall to hopeless arguing with no resolution. In other versions, a wise man explains to them what’s really going on. And that does make it a good metaphor for religion. Either people trust what someone else tells them is true, or they squabble endlessly and even fall to blows, with no means of resolving their disagreements.

But here’s the interesting thing:

I have never seen a version of the fable in which the blind men start explaining to one another why they think the elephant is what they think it is. I have never seen a version where the blind men say, “Hey, come over here! Follow my voice, and check this out — this is why I think it’s a snake!” (Or a tree trunk, or a rope, or whatever.)

And yet, that’s exactly how science works.

Yes, of course, if God existed, he would be immense and complex and difficult to perceive and understand.

And what — the physical universe isn’t?

Galaxies
The physical universe is both far, far larger and far, far weirder than we had any conception of 500 years ago, or indeed 100. Billions upon billions of galaxies all rushing apart from each other at blinding speed; everything made up of atoms that are mostly empty space; space that curves; continents that drift… I could go on and on. It’s way too big, way too complex, way too multi-faceted, for any one person to accurately comprehend.

And yet, the blind men are coming to a fair understanding of what an elephant is.

Every century, every decade, every year, the blind men are getting a better and better picture of an elephant.

And here’s how.

Scientific_method
For hundreds of years now, thousands even, the blind men have been saying to each other, “Over here! Check this out! This is why I think it’s a snake!” And the other blind men come over and check out the snake, and one of them says, “I agree, this part has a lot in common with a snake, but it also has these differences… and interestingly, the surface feels very much like the tree trunk I was feeling yesterday.” And they each form departments to study the different parts of the elephant… and they compare notes and rigorously critique one another’s findings about the different elephant parts… and they come up with theories to explain what an elephant is, some of which make better or worse predictions about what they’ll find in between the snake-like thing and the tree-like thing… and then they embark on their Top Of The Elephant exploration program, and send probes and explorers and the Voyager Ladder to the top of the elephant and discover these amazing Ear things that they’d never imagined…

Indian_elephant_(PSF)
… and as each year and decade and century passes, we get a clearer picture of what an elephant is. It’s not perfect — there are big holes in the picture, and almost certainly mistakes as well. But we have theories about elephant-ness that make astonishingly accurate predictions about how the elephant will act and what we’ll find next on our continuing elephant explorations. And we have better and better forms of elephant perception all the time: both better techniques for exploring the elephant, and better methods for testing that our theories and data about the elephant are good. Our understanding of an elephant is better now than it was a century ago, and in another century it’ll be better still.

Why does this work?

Because the elephant is really there.

Because there is actually something out there that we can compare notes on. Because when two blind men feel an elephant’s trunk, they’re feeling the same real thing.

Now.

As I said in The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God (and about 63 other places on this blog):

Compare, please, to religion.

Argue
In religion, we have no such consensus. The Snakians and the Treeists and the Ropafarians are still squabbling, still dividing up into sects, still coming up with no better argument for their beliefs than “Other people say it” and “I feel it in my heart” and “You can’t prove it didn’t happen.” And they’re still coming up with no clearer picture of the elephant: no better ability to predict what the elephant will do, no better skill at guiding the elephant in the direction that they want, than they had a year ago, or a hundred, or a thousand.

Why?

Slashed circle
Because there’s nothing there.

It’s all just stuff people made up. Consciously or un-. People can’t show each other the evidence for the Snake, or the Tree, or the Rope, and convince each other on the basis of the evidence… because there is no evidence. There is no snake, no tree, no rope. There’s nothing there. There’s just the conviction that the snake has to be there, because everyone else says there’s a snake, and our mother and father and all our teachers and authorities say there’s a snake, and we Snakians have believed in the snake for generations, and we’ve known about the snake since childhood, and besides we just feel the snake in our hearts.

The reason that there’s no increased consensus about religion? The reason that different religions today are as different, as inconsistent, as mutually contradictory, as they always have been, for thousands of years? The reason that prayer and prophecy haven’t gotten any more effective over the years?

The reason isn’t that God is a huge, complex, multi-faceted elephant that no one person can completely and accurately perceive.

The reason is that there is no elephant.

Come See Me Read! Perverts Put Out, Saturday Sept. 27

If you’re going to be in the San Francisco area this Saturday, come see me read! I’ll be reading at the pre- Folsom Street Fair edition of the fabulous and increasingly renowned Perverts Put Out sex reading series, on Saturday, September 27. In addition to ME ME ME ME ME, performers will include Meliza Bañales, Jen Cross, Thomas Roche, horehound stillpoint, Steven Schwartz, and Cherry Terror, emceed by Carol Queen and Simon Sheppard.

The event will be at CounterPulse, 1310 Mission Street in San Francisco, not far from the Civic Center BART station. It starts at 7:30 pm, and you’re advised to come on the early side, since the last edition was standing room only. Cost is $10-15, sliding scale. Hope to see you there!

God Is Magic

There’s an argument that gets made a fair amount by religious believers. It gets made by more thoughtful theists and by, shall we say, less thoughtful ones; it gets made in forms that are marginally clever and forms that are laughably bad. But none of the versions are ultimately very good, and none of them are convincing unless you already believe in God.

The argument:

Jesus is magic
God is magic, and he can do anything.

Here’s the more fleshed-out version of it. Phenomenon (X) currently has no natural explanation. Given our current understanding of the physical world, Phenomenon (X) can’t have a natural explanation. Therefore, the explanation must be supernatural. Or, at the very least, it’s reasonable to think that the explanation is, or might be, supernatural.

In other words: The physical world is bound by immutable laws of cause and effect. But God, by definition, is not bound by immutable laws of cause and effect. God is magic, and he can do anything. Therefore, if we don’t currently understand the laws of cause and effect governing Phenomenon (X), the best explanation, or at least a marginally reasonable assumption, is God.

Example. In the physical world, effects have to have causes. Things can’t bring themselves into being, and things can’t just have existed forever. But the universe itself must either have (a) always existed, or (b) somehow come into being from nothingness. Therefore, the universe must have been brought into being by an entity that is not bound by the natural laws of cause and effect. In other words — by God. God is magic, and therefore he can have created himself or always have existed, and he can have created the universe out of nothing but himself and the void.

It is, in my opinion, a terrible argument. I want to talk about why.

Time line of the universe
1: Sez who?

Who says that Phenomenon (X) — say, the very existence of the universe itself — can’t possibly have a natural explanation?

Just because we don’t currently have a natural explanation for it, does that mean we never will?

I’m going to make a point that I’ve made approximately 90,690 times in this blog (so my apologies to people who are getting sick of it, I promise I’ll move past it in a moment): Look at history. Specifically, look at the number of times that we thought Phenomena (A, B, C, D, E) had supernatural causes. Had to have supernatural causes. Could not possibly have been caused by anything other than the supernatural.

Origin of species
And look at the number of times we were wrong. Look at the number of times that supernatural explanations for phenomena have been replaced by natural ones. It’s thousands. Tens, or even hundreds of thousands, depending on how specific the phenomena are that you’re talking about.

Now, look at the number of times we were wrong in the other direction. Look at the number of times we thought Phenomenon (Y) had to have natural, physical causes, and wound up being wrong about that. Look at the number of times that unexplained phenomena have been carefully, rigorously studied, and all the best evidence pointed to the cause being spirits, or metaphysical energy, or God.

It’s exactly zero.

The question of “Where did the Universe come from?” (or “Did the universe just always exist?” or “Why is there something instead of nothing?”) is currently an unanswered question. But that absolutely does not mean that it’s an unanswerable question. In fact, it’s a question we’re trying to answer. It’s a question that’s being looked into. Physicists and astronomers are working on an answer as we speak.

Geodetic_effekt
Now, if and when they do come up with an answer, it may boggle our tiny little minds. It may completely rewrite our way of thinking about the world — much the way that heliocentrism and evolution and relativity did. It may even make us completely re-think the very concepts of cause and effect. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be real. It doesn’t mean it won’t be right. And it doesn’t mean it won’t be an entirely natural, physical explanation.

The fact that we do not currently have a natural, physical answer to this question does not prove — or even imply — that no such answer exists.

Some people will probably argue that this response shows a faith in science that is identical to a faith in God; that it’s essentially saying, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I trust that the answer will prove to be a natural/ scientific one,” in the same way that religious believers say, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I trust that the answer will prove to be a spiritual one.”

But it’s not.

It’s not a response based on faith. It’s a response based on evidence: the evidence of history. It’s not a blind faith in science; it’s an observation that, when it comes to unanswered questions about the world, the answers have always wound up being natural and physical… and that therefore, given any currently unanswered question, the existence of a natural, physical answer is an immeasurably better bet.

Blake_ancient_of_days
2: The universe just doesn’t look that way.

Let me put it this way. If the universe were created, and intervened with on any sort of regular basis, by a being who was magic, a being who was completely unrestricted by the natural laws of cause and effect and who had no limits to his magical power… wouldn’t that just be obvious?

Would there be any arguments at all about his existence?

Wouldn’t there be violations of the natural laws of cause and effect on a regular basis? Heck, would there even BE natural laws of cause and effect?

That’s not what the universe looks like. The universe operates by laws of physical cause and effect… laws that are remarkably consistent. Phenomenally consistent. “Insert superlative of your choice” consistent.

Claims of miracles — i.e., supernatural interventions that violate the natural laws of cause and effect — consistently fall apart on closer inspection. They just don’t happen.

Given that this is the case, we have one of three options:

MATRIX
A: There is a God, but he not only intervenes in the physical universe: he intervenes in our perceptions and our understanding, making us think that the universe operates by consistent physical laws when really it doesn’t. Otherwise known as the “Matrix” option, or the “stoned college sophomore discovering solipsism for the first time” option. Theoretically possible, but not very plausible. It’s also not falsifiable or testable one way or the other, and is therefore useless as a hypothesis.

Hands off manager
B: There is a God, and he created the universe, but he does not intervene in it in any way, shape or form. Since he created it, he just sits back and watches as it unfolds according to the laws of cause and effect. This is the Deism option. Also theoretically possible, and kind of hard to argue against, since the effective difference between a Deist God and no god at all is zilch.

But for that exact reason, it’s also not falsifiable or testable in any way, and is also useless as a hypothesis.

And, more to the point — it’s completely irrelevant. Again, for that exact same reason. If there is an infinitely powerful magical being who brought the universe into being, but who never intervenes in that universe in any way… why should we care? What difference would it make? The effective difference between a Deist God and no god at all is zero. What reason is there to believe in him, or to act as if he exists?

Or… and this is the one I’m going to go with, if for no other reason than Occam’s Razor…

C: There is no God.

Letting go of god
Julia Sweeney said it best, in her amazing performance piece “Letting Go of God.” After a long, arduous journey of spiritual searching, starting with her original Catholicism and going through New Age spirituality and vague beliefs that “God is nature” or “God is love,” she came to this conclusion: “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.”

The world does not behave as if a magical being who could do anything were running the show. The world behaves as if it operated, entirely and 100%, according to physical laws of cause and effect.

Slash circle
3. There’s just no evidence for it.

There’s a point Ingrid keeps making, and it’s time I brought it up. She points out that every scrap of “evidence” that there is for religion comes from human beings. It comes from parents and religious teachers, from prophets and from sacred books, from just sitting around in your room thinking really hard.

And the “God is Magic” argument is exactly the same.

The “God is Magic” argument comes dangerously close to Anselm’s famously crappy ontological argument. That argument, for those who aren’t familiar, goes roughly like this: “I can imagine a completely perfect being, i.e. God. But an aspect of perfection would have to be actual existence: if something didn’t actually exist, by definition it wouldn’t be perfect. Therefore, God exists.” (No, really. Stop laughing. I am not making this up. I actually had to learn this when I was a religion major, as one of the classic arguments in favor of God’s existence.)

The “God is Magic” version of this essentially goes, “I am defining God as that which can always have existed and can create universes out of nothing. This magical God would provide a very neat and tidy explanation for any unanswered questions we might have. Therefore, God exists.”

But the fact that you can imagine and define such a being does not provide even one scrap of evidence that he actually exists.

Simpsons_church_sign
I realize that atheists sound a bit like a broken record when we say this, but it’s important and it’s true: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does: to prove that God is the best explanation for why things are the way they are, or even a plausible explanation that we should seriously consider.

Example: If you believe in theistic evolution — the theory that evolution is a process created and guided by God to create life and people — you can’t just say, “It could have happened that way. You can’t prove that it didn’t.” You need to show some evidence for why that’s a better hypothesis than evolution just happening as a natural process. You need to point to structures or processes that could not have evolved naturally, or to transitions in the fossil record that show unmistakable signs of intervention. (The intelligent design crowd has tried to do this, with laughably bad results.)

And if you believe in a God-created universe, you have to show some evidence for why that’s a better explanation for the existence of the universe than, for instance, the idea that universe has simply always existed. You can’t just say, “Well, we don’t know how it happened, and it had to happen somehow, and God is as good an explanation as any.” You can’t just say that the universe is impossible, define God as that which can do the impossible, and call that an answer.

Watch the gap
The “God is Magic” argument is really just another version of the “God of the gaps”; the God that is the answer to whatever gaps there currently are in the body of scientific knowledge; the blue crayon that gets used to fill in all the empty spaces in the coloring book… despite the fact that blue has never, ever proven to be the right color.

And it’s not actually an explanation. It doesn’t offer any clarity about why things are the way they are — a magical God could presumably have made things be any way at all, and the answer to why would ultimately just be, “God’s whim.” And it doesn’t offer any predictive power — ditto.

It’s not actually an explanation. It’s just a way of getting around the necessity of offering an explanation.

The Obligatory Sarah Palin Column, Or, Why I Don’t Care About A Pregnant 17 Year Old: The Blowfish Blog

Sarah Palin
I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a piece about Sarah Palin… and what I do, and don’t, think are important questions when considering her (snicker) qualifications to be Vice President of the United States.

It’s titled The Obligatory Sarah Palin Column, Or, Why I Don’t Care About A Pregnant 17 Year Old, and here’s the teaser:

I just don’t care that much.

About the pregnant seventeen year old, I mean.

I suppose this is an abdication of my responsibility as a lefty sex writer. But I just don’t care that much that the 2008 Republican nominee for vice-president has a 17-year-old daughter who’s unmarried and pregnant.

I don’t even care all that much about the hypocritical double standard: how Sarah Palin and the Republicans want us to respect Bristol Palin’s personal and sexual privacy but don’t want to respect anyone else’s. That sort of double standard isn’t the most charming trait in the world, especially in an elected official… but it’s also very human. We all cut slack, and make excuses, and act protectively, for the people we’re close to. It’s probably not morally perfect, but I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world where it wasn’t true.

When it comes to Sarah Palin, here’s what I do care about.

To find out what I care about regarding Sarah Palin — when it comes to her views on sex, as well as other topics — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!