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Jul 29 2014

AtheistTV gets a thumbs up

I was home for a late lunch, so I flipped on the Roku and installed the AtheistTV channel. It was easy, but then you Roku owners know that part already.

The channel is well organized into various categories, but right now content is a little thin — the comedy category, for instance, contains one video, and the movie category…well, there are a few entries there, but it’s a stretch to call them ‘movies’. I guess atheists are a bit light on providing entertainment.

But I consider the sparse content on the day of the launch to be a good thing. My dread was that they’d take a shortcut to filling up the channel by importing youtube videos wholesale, and then it would be an exercise in wading through garbage to find the gems. That’s not the case at all — they’ve exercised restraint and quality control.

So what you’ll find there is a lot of material relevant to American Atheists: recordings of talks at the last few national conferences and the Reason Rally, and AA’s official talk show, the Atheist Viewpoint. There’s a lot of stuff transferred from the RDF. The Atheist Community of Austin is featured with a collection of videos from the Atheist Experience. When I say it’s thin, I’m talking relatively, compared to a movie channel — you could still veg out for many weeks nonstop trying to watch everything on it. It’s still important that they are being selective about putting up videos with thoughtful commentary about atheism.

It also looks ready for expansion, and I’m sure even more will be added. It’s a good strategy for introducing the content of the conferences to a wider audience, and that’s a natural procedure for generating new material.

Some suggestions I’d make: it really is American Atheist-centered, understandably, but it would be nice to see partnering with CFI or American Humanists or British Humanists, for instance, to fold in some of their content. It would also be cool to adopt more science content — HHMI, for example, has lots of free science videos that aren’t at all explicitly atheistic but would fit in well with a theme of scientific naturalism (whether they’d be willing to have them shown on an atheist channel is an open question). Not just science, but also history and philosophy categories would be a nice addition.

Check it out. I think it’s going to be useful. If you have a Roku, it’s definitely worth getting the channel (it’s free, so I’m not saying much there), but it’s also yet another reason to get a Roku if you don’t have one.

Jul 29 2014

Why why why?

I really like Richard Dawkins, personally and professionally, although a lot of readers here get indignant at that. But that’s why it hurts to see him say obnoxious things on Twitter, like rating different kinds of rape and pedophilia. He doesn’t understand why that’s objectionable; has he ever heard of Todd Akin (maybe not — he is an obscure American politician who made up a lot of nonsense about “legitimate rape” and got flambéed for it)? This is like walking straight into a firepit that has consumed many far-right wingnuts (which Dawkins is not) before him, and thinking he’ll come out unsinged.

Amanda Marcotte does an excellent job of explaining why his remarks were objectionable. That feminists think a patronizing pat on the ass deserves a lesser punishment than rape is simply not an issue; we don’t need condescending explanations of basic logic to understand the concept. The problem is people who don’t understand that logic at all, and think there’s a sharp cliff, an all-or-nothing pattern, so that rape gets you put in jail, while date rape gets you a high-five in the locker room. And those people aren’t feminists.

If you want to make a difference in social attitudes, you can say “Date rape is bad”…full stop. You don’t go on and say that some other form of rape is worse, because that’s all the date-rapers see: “Richard Dawkins says I’m not as bad as a rapist”. The first part is ignored.

Better still: I believe in a proportional response to a crime, and therefore someone who commits date rape should not go unpunished.


Maybe this will get through to him.

Jul 29 2014

Note to self: Avoid scheduling layovers in Arizona

What the hell is wrong with that state? No public place is safe.

A brain scientist was arrested on suspicion of pointing a rifle toward a woman and her 17-year-old daughter inside a busy Phoenix airport terminal, police said Monday. Peter Steinmetz, 54, who works for the Barrow Neurological Institute, removed the AR-15 assault rifle from over his shoulder in a Starbucks at Sky Harbor International Airport on Friday and pointed it in the direction of the women, Sgt. Steve Martos of the Phoenix Police Department said in a statement. Arizona law permits the carrying of semi-automatic weapons in public areas, including the non-secure zones of airports.

One of the pointless things about security theater is that we now have these amazing pileups of people at security checkpoints — if someone wants to kill a lot of people all at once, do it at the security line on a busy morning at the airport. And the Phoenix airport allows people to stroll in with assault rifles, no problem? If I were a terrorist, my eyes would light up at the news of such a ripe opportunity.

Although, this is Arizona…I’m sure any brown people who walked in with an assault rifle would be immediately confronted, since white people never commit terrorist acts.

And why does that guy (who is living proof that you don’t need to be a genius to earn a doctorate) need an assault rifle at an airport Starbucks? I know the coffee is overpriced and burnt, but there are better ways to respond.

Jul 29 2014

Something is wrong with SIWOTI!

Deja vu, man, deja vu. Someone else has a hate site that obsesses over their blog.

The people who run and participate in this site are largely disgruntled former commenters, some of whom left on their own after I disappointed them in some way, and some of whom were banned after violating the commenting policy. There are, increasingly, participants at the site who have never even engaged at Shakesville, but just find some satisfaction in participating in a space dedicated to the explicit purpose of destroying this community.

They explicitly want to chase me out of my space, offline, and want me to have no opportunities to make a living doing what I’ve done for the last ten years of my life. They want this community to cease to exist because they don’t like me and the commenting policy, and don’t care what destroying it would mean for the people to whom this community means something.

That’s from Melissa at Shakesville. We’ve seen exactly the same thing here at Freethoughtblogs, and over the years, I’ve had multiple badly-done Pharyngula hate-sites pop up and fade away. It’s bizarre. The trigger for all the hatred is usually the injustice of getting banned, and I just don’t get it. I’ve been there myself.

Many years ago, before I started up this blog, I’d been active debating creationists on various forums. I’d post replies and rebuttals to stupid creationist claims, and more than once, I was asked to leave or banned because I was “disrespectful” or “rude” or “making people angry”. You won’t believe what I did next:

I left.

I didn’t try to sneak back, either. I’ve always used the same pseudonym, pzmyers, on all of my logins.

These creatonists are people who are emphatically wrong and persist in endorsing idiocy, definitely triggering all of my SIWOTI symptoms, but they’ve got their place and if the owners of the forum say they don’t want me using their services, I stop using them. It’s really not that hard.

But for some reason, some people get extremely bitter about being told to go away. They are outraged that you deny them the privilege of participating on your wonderful blog. They start making sockpuppets and probing at the filters to see if they get around the ban. Remember that obnoxious Australian guy who’d create a new sock every night and get on to leave a pile of insults while I was sleeping? That went on for weeks. Remember Reap Paden, who currently holds the record for the number of pseudonyms he ran through (well over 40 before I lost track), and yet was instantly recognizable to everyone, thanks to his godawfully bad writing? There are many more you don’t know about who don’t puzzle out what I’m filtering on, and keep pounding out comments that get instantly shunted off to the spam queue. There’s one guy who comes by every week or two to make a test comment, in the hopes that the blockade will have magically lifted…and he’s been doing this for two years.

Others scurry off and set up anti sites, like the Shakesville haters. It’s a good way to leech off the popularity of someone else: provide a watering hole for all the people with a grudge against the site you despise, and gather like-minded people to sit and fume and whine and moan. And best of all from my perspective, they obsess so much that they become fanatical readers of everything I do, even more dedicated readers than the busiest of our regular commenters.*

But I don’t have it as bad as some. Shakesville is a singular site with a much more restrictive commenting policy than I have here, so she bears the brunt of the nuisances. Here, at least, we’ve spread the hate load: Ashley gets the racists, the rest of us get the same old banned-on-Pharyngula crowd, but now they’re having to strain to find a blog on FtB that they haven’t been banned from…and you’ll see that, too, when a new blog is opened up here, the same names that were long kicked outta here show up in the comments to whine at length. It really is like a tick infestation.

Another factor is that for some reason these parasites really hate the idea that a blog might stand up for a cause. Ophelia is getting comments from Phil Giordana (yeah, another long-gone Pharyngula reject) who is flinging the insult du jour, “Social Justice Warrior.” Ophelia asked him why he was against social justice, and this was his answer:

I never threatened anyone online, never attacked peoples’ appearance, apologized to you for using what you consider “gendered slur”, yet I’m still banned from your blog. You fuckwit! (that one’s fine, OB said so).

Boggling, ain’t it? This is a guy who does nothing with his time online other than to rant with fellow obnoxious people about how he was banned and how awful FtB is, and to whine on Facebook about how much he despises “social justice warriors” because he was banned from several sites.

There was a comment on Ophelia’s site from thetalkingstove that I thought was fairly insightful about the situation.

I fully admit this is just speculation, but I suspect that the whining about being banned from forums shines a light on a lot of the motivation certain people have for being in the skeptical movement (such as it is). For them, it’s not about changing the world for the better; they’ve simply found something that enables them to feel superior to other people – easy targets like creationists and alternative medicine – and that makes them feel good, that their opinion and intellectual prowess are special.

Then when they encounter people who aren’t impressed by their amazing logic skillz, it hurts. It shakes that image of themselves as being stupendously rational and intellectually superior, and they can’t let that go.

Shorter version: a lot of people are in the skeptical movement because they’re arrogant arseholes.

That rings true, especially since these people tend not to be very good at that logic part — witness Giordana’s reply to Ophelia. They’re not very clever, they don’t care about anyone else, and they want to join the Smart Kids Club just because it boosts their ego, and when they’re rejected, they lash out.

I have a suggestion for them, though. Join MENSA. They’ll take anyone.


*Ironic footnote. They also like to complain nastily about regular commenters who are here every day…without calling attention to the fact that they here every day, screencapping and copy-pasting and writing angry rebuttals to every nitpicking detail.

Jul 28 2014

What’s wrong with rainbow families?

A woman went to a fertility clinic for artificial insemination, and discovered a surprising stipulation. She’s white, so they’ll only allow her access to sperm from white men.

Dr. Calvin Greene, the clinic’s administrative director, confirmed the private facility will not treat couples or singles who insist on using donors of a different ethnicity. The policy has been in place since the clinic opened in the 1980s.

“I’m not sure that we should be creating rainbow families just because some single woman decides that that’s what she wants,” he said. “That’s her prerogative, but that’s not her prerogative in our clinic.”

A statement on the clinic’s website reads: “it is the practice of the Regional Fertility Program not to permit the use of a sperm donor that would result in a future child appearing racially different than the recipient or the recipient’s partner.”

“Rainbow families”? Does Canada have miscegenation laws, because this is the same thing.

Maybe there was a typo in the doctor’s statement. Perhaps these rules were formulated in the 1880s.

Jul 28 2014

I must be a gamma, too

True confession: my wife has been on a historical feminism kick lately: the other day she forced me to watch Iron Jawed Angels with her. This evening we’ve got the PBS documentary One Woman One Vote on the TV right now. So it was amusing that Vox Day and David Futrelle had a ‘debate’ over whether women should be allowed to vote. Actually, Day proposed a debate on a subject that was settled in the USA about 95 years ago, and Futrelle laughed dismissively, and Vox Day declared himself the winner.

Critics such as Futrelle and Scalzi are of low socio-sexual rank, which means that they have the usual gamma male’s distaste for conflict that has a clear winner. The reason is that as long as they can avoid losing, they can still claim victory in their delusional gamma style.

Wait. But it was Vox Day who threw out a few non sequiturs and declared himself winner…this is confusing.

Anyway, the two movies were pretty good, you can watch them yourselves at the links.

So, we’ve had a weekend of late 19th/early 20th century feminism at my place. Any recommendations for movie/documentary treatments of feminist history in the 1960s onward? I’ve worked my way from beta to the gamma badge, I think, and now I’m looking for credit towards delta-hood, and — dare I aspire so high? — to someday make epsilon.

Jul 28 2014

Mary’s Monday Metazoan: Cartilage!

Jul 28 2014

Scariest news yet

Liberia is experiencing a major Ebola outbreak.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has announced the closure of most of the Ebola-hit country’s land borders after the deadly tropical virus spread to two of west Africa’s largest cities.

Liberia, along with neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone, is struggling to contain an epidemic that has infected some 1,200 people and left at least 670 dead across the region since the start of the year.

A 56% mortality rate is a great improvement over the 90% reported in previous outbreaks, but it’s dependent on getting care to the affected rapidly. And one of the affected is an American doctor working to treat Ebola patients in Monrovia. Even that rate could worsen if the medical infrastructure were to break down.

Jul 28 2014

Apparently, stated intent is magic

Sam Harris weighs in on the destruction going on in Gaza. He proceeds very, very carefully, explaining that the situation in Israel is complicated, they’re a largely secular state with a historical justification for their establishment, people with a history of oppression should have a safe haven, wars in any cause all cause casualties, yadda yadda yadda. And I agree emphatically with that. The people of Israel have a secular right to autonomous existence; they have a unique history of persecution (becoming increasingly less unique, unfortunately) and it is morally right to correct an injustice; every war is an evil that has unintended consequences, which is why we should be reluctant to enter them, and only engage when absolutely necessary (and I will also concede that the calculus for determining that is murky). But all that is just a prelude to his justification for Israel’s actions: it’s because their enemies are evil, and deserve it. Somehow, I’m not surprised at that.

Needless to say, in defending its territory as a Jewish state, the Israeli government and Israelis themselves have had to do terrible things. They have, as they are now, fought wars against the Palestinians that have caused massive losses of innocent life. More civilians have been killed in Gaza in the last few weeks than militants. That’s not a surprise because Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Occupying it, fighting wars in it, is guaranteed to get woman and children and other noncombatants killed. And there’s probably little question over the course of fighting multiple wars that the Israelis have done things that amount to war crimes. They have been brutalized by this process—that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely the due to the character of their enemies.

Strangely, he never seems to question the necessity of fighting a war to keep a people oppressed, or considers the possibility that Palestinians see themselves as victims of the Israeli state, ghettoized and kept in a perpetual condition of essential serfdom…and that even that tiny bit of land that they do hold is constantly threatened by settlers and politicians eager to annex the place by one means or another. There is no consideration of alternatives, that maybe war is not the best solution to an extremely complicated (as he knows!) social problem. But to admit that they are committing war crimes, but that it is all the enemy’s fault, is simply disgraceful.

I must emphasize that this is NOT A DEFENSE OF HAMAS. As Harris points out, their goals are indefensible and despicable.

The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions towards them. The charter of Hamas is explicitly genocidal. It looks forward to a time, based on Koranic prophesy, when the earth itself will cry out for Jewish blood, where the trees and the stones will say “O Muslim, there’s a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.” This is a political document. We are talking about a government that was voted into power by a majority of the Palestinians.

That is an evil statement, and I condemn it whole-heartedly. But condemning one side does not mean I endorse the other — it is possible to see that there is a lot of indefensible and despicable activity on both sides. Also, I’m not saying “a pox upon both houses” — I don’t think the evil Jews deserve to die, any more than I think all those evil Palestinians deserve it. There needs to be a solution to a complicated hatred between both sides, and the simple solution of war until one side is broken does not resolve it. Short of genocide (do I need to argue against that?), it only exacerbates the issues. Does anyone really believe blowing up houses, killing terrorists (and incurring lots of collateral damage), building giant walls, and imposing more and more restrictions on the lives of Palestinians, will actually accommodate themselves to Israeli rule?

Elie Wiesel, in Legends of Our Time, wrote this:

Every Jew, somewhere in his being, should set apart a zone of hate — healthy, virile hate — for what the German personifies and for what persists in the German.

Should we use that to argue against the legitimacy of Israel? It’s an example of emphatic hatred directed at a whole people (even though he walks it back in a footnote — he’s decrying racism, not all Germans — and he also visited Germany and felt no desire to kill everyone he met.) Persecution tends to do that to people, to feed the fires of hatred. It’s not an excuse, but when you kill and torture and oppress, normal human beings tend not to reply with love and forgiveness.

Then Harris trots out the most stupid argument ever.

Whatever terrible things the Israelis have done, it is also true to say that they have used more restraint in their fighting against the Palestinians than we—the Americans, or Western Europeans—have used in any of our wars. They have endured more worldwide public scrutiny than any other society has ever had to while defending itself against aggressors. The Israelis simply are held to a different standard. And the condemnation leveled at them by the rest of the world is completely out of proportion to what they have actually done.

I’ve been hearing a lot of this sort of thing, and it’s nonsense. With American gun laws, I could buy an assault rifle, modify it to be fully automatic, get a couple of extra large clips, and march into the local Catholic church and gun down the entire congregation (NO, I would never do such a thing). We have that power. So if I get a rifle and shoot just one Catholic as they were walking down the street (also never going to do that), could I use the excuse that I was exercising commendable restraint? If I did kill 10 innocent people, could I then claim that I was being judged by a different standard, because I could have parked a truck full of fertilizer explosive outside the building and killed hundreds and destroyed the whole church, just like Tim McVeigh?

No. I judge by a consistent moral standard, rather than the relative one Harris is using. Killing people is not a good thing, whether it’s one or a thousand or six million, and the existence of one gigantic moral atrocity, like the Holocaust or the Indian genocide, does not suddenly diminish the significance of numerically smaller crimes. It’s horror all the way around.

There is also a kind of moral blindness at work here. He says the condemnation is out of proportion to what they’ve actually done…so what exactly have they done? Harris comes right out and tells us.

But there is no way to look at the images coming out Gaza—especially of infants and toddlers riddled by shrapnel—and think that this is anything other than a monstrous evil. Insofar as the Israelis are the agents of this evil, it seems impossible to support them. And there is no question that the Palestinians have suffered terribly for decades under the occupation. This is where most critics of Israel appear to be stuck. They see these images, and they blame Israel for killing and maiming babies. They see the occupation, and they blame Israel for making Gaza a prison camp. I would argue that this is a kind of moral illusion, borne of a failure to look at the actual causes of this conflict, as well as of a failure to understand the intentions of the people on either side of it.

The “Palestinians have suffered terribly for decades under the occupation”. Stop right there. What do you mean, we critics are “stuck”? Isn’t that a terrible, awful fact of Middle East history that is being blithely glossed over? Of course it is. Sam Harris apparently does not think it’s that big a deal that the Palestinians are suffering under an occupation, and for someone who wants to claim we have to look at the big picture to see the causes of the conflict, he doesn’t seem to see how that could have led to the hatred expressed by Hamas. Again, not to excuse it…but if you want to address it, you can’t simply call the Palestinians evil bad guys and offer no solutions other than shooting them. Both sides have deep antecedents and a thousand justifications.

See the Elie Wiesel quote above. Many of the Palestinians hate the Israelis, no small wonder. You don’t fix it by shooting their cousin, or dropping a bomb on the local schoolhouse.

But all that matters to Harris is intent.

And this gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies. And this is something I discussed in The End of Faith. To see this moral difference, you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it.

What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted? Well, we know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want. The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow. So what does that mean? Well, it means that, when they drop a bomb on a beach and kill four Palestinian children, as happened last week, this is almost certainly an accident. They’re not targeting children. They could target as many children as they want. Every time a Palestinian child dies, Israel edges ever closer to becoming an international pariah. So the Israelis take great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants. 

Whoa. So the reason we know that Israel would not commit genocide if they could do anything they wanted is because right now they have total power and can do anything they want, and they aren’t committing genocide. But that’s not true! Israel’s military power is strongly dependent on foreign support — maintaining good relations with the United States is a major constraint (well, maybe not that constraining, because so far it looks like Congress rolls over and does whatever Israel asks). Further, in his cautious prelude, Harris emphasized that Israel has a complex society with a very strong secular component — there are Jewish elements who resist the idea of wholesale murder, too. Right now, Israel has external and internal constraints, so it’s silly to argue that they don’t.

Israel has elected a government that is aggressively militant. If that government were released from all restraints, I suspect that they’d push for an even more thorough campaign of extermination. But that’s speculation about intent — I’m more interested in the actual evidence. I look at the casualties, and there sure seem to be a lot of dead Palestinians for an enemy that takes “great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants”. And then there’s the distribution of the deaths.

The United Nations estimates that more than 70% of the Palestinians killed were civilians, including 226 youths and 117 women. More than 150 were members of armed groups, the United Nations says.

UNICEF said Monday that about two-thirds of the children killed were 12 years old or younger.

We’re supposed to believe in reason and evidence. When I see a thousand dead bodies, many of them children, and city blocks reduced to rubble, I tend not to accept the claim that that was reasonable restraint. Likewise, when Hamas launches rockets into Jewish suburbs, I tend not to accept that they are acting under reasonable restraint.

We get another of those hypocritical arguments used by IDF apologists.

The truth is that everything you need to know about the moral imbalance between Israel and her enemies can be understood on the topic of human shields. Who uses human shields? Well, Hamas certainly does. They shoot their rockets from residential neighborhoods, from beside schools, and hospitals, and mosques. Muslims in other recent conflicts, in Iraq and elsewhere, have also used human shields. They have laid their rifles on the shoulders of their own children and shot from behind their bodies.

OK. So we should excuse the deaths of all the civilians caused by the Israeli military because they are a regrettable and unavoidable consequence of fighting in an urban area with a high civilian population density. But we have to blame the Palestinians for fighting in their homes in an urban area with a high civilian population density — they should have found some nice open fields somewhere and deployed an army that could be met by the Israeli army, I guess.

And please, please stop characterizing specific groups with specific issues and causes with global Islamism. I despise that religion myself, but that does not mean you can simply lump Palestinians under the thumb of Israel with Muslims in Iraq or unsourced claims that Muslims use their own children as shields, or complaining about ISIS when talking about the events in Gaza. Let’s start by recognizing that Palestinians have legitimate grievances, as Harris tacitly acknowledges, and not ignoring them under the umbrella of simply declaring them wicked and deserving of all that they get.


Here is an example of Israel’s measured response.

Jul 28 2014

At least the title gets it right: the author is a “Know Nothing”

It’s weird. There’s this new Dawkins’ Flea, Nick Spencer, who has written a book called Atheists: The Origin of the Species, which I have not read nor am I interested in reading. But it also has this positive review by Michael Robbins in Slate, and I get so much mail about it — either people who declare “Checkmate, Atheists!” or “This is really stupid, you should rip into it”, in equal measure. I’m going to have to side with “it’s stupid.”

It’s unoriginal. It’s the same old nonsense parroted by anti-atheists for the past decade. In fact, all I had to do is skim the thing and see familiar tropes jump out at me, and until people started sending me link after link, I didn’t bother to read it carefully.

Let me tell you, reading it carefully did not make it any better.

Here are the key arguments that bored me:

New Atheists aren’t new. Oh, please. Anyone who tries to make this argument is an idiot and can be simply dismissed. WE KNOW. Every big-name New Atheist I know has grumbled about this stupid label. We didn’t come up with it. It was imposed on us from the outside, and every time it was brought up, we’d grumble, “But these ideas have been around for a long time…” and get ignored. And now we get accused of being ignorant of history, philosophy, and literature because we think we came up with this stuff for the very first time. We didn’t, and we sure don’t believe so. Fuck off.

Nietzsche! Nietzche, Nietzsche, Nietsche. This one is just annoying, but it’s a good, reliable marker for pseudo-erudite apologetics for religion. When they start talking about Nietzsche, you know exactly where they’re going: it’s not that he was an interesting, complicated, and unique philosopher, but all they want to tell you is that he was the last good atheist. Why? Because he was an anguished atheist who saw the loss of faith as a great tragedy for our culture, that was going to cause massive upheavals. You are allowed to be an atheist only if you feel deep regret and show the proper appreciation for the magnitude of religion’s contributions to humanity.

Many atheists do feel pain at leaving religion, especially if they were brought up deeply imbedded within it. Becoming an atheist means saying Mom & Dad & Grandma & Grandpa were completely wrong about something they thought was extremely important in their lives, and that’s sometimes very hard to do. But they still feel it’s clear enough and important enough to deny tradition, because that religion they were brought up with turns out to have been evil bullshit. I’d like to see these apologists make a similar argument against egalitarianism — the last good person to promote equal rights was the one who expressed deep remorse over his cherished lost racism, and who was unhappy that ending slavery would change the world.

And some of us atheists were brought up largely outside the fervent cults, and we look at religious culture and laugh. No brainwashing that we have to struggle to overcome, you know. And that’s a good thing.

Atheists are arrogant, Christians are humble. Yeah, Robbins actually pulls this old chestnut out of hat as the conclusion for his essay. Right. The people who claim to have a direct line to the Creator Of The Universe, Invisible Master of All Things, Who tells them that they have a special purpose and will live for Eternity, and who have a Divine Mission to make sure everyone else follows God’s marching orders, are humble. The ones who say we live in a thin skin of water and air on one small rock among uncountable trillions in the universe, who say existence is fragile and we need to work to maintain it, and that we’re nothing special, except to ourselves…those are the arrogant ones.

Here’s the big one: Religion is not an explanation for the facts of life. I have heard so many variants of this nonsense; of course Karen Armstrong and Marilynne Robinson and David Bentley Hart are cited, those masters of effusively saying nothing at all. When you point out a contradiction or a fallacy in their holy doctrine, theologians are always quick to start waving their hands and shouting that the Holy Book is not a science text! You have to read it metaphorically! You have to interpret it in a proper historical and social context! OK, I can do that. Given that it gets so much humanly wrong, we must conclude that these documents are the expressions of human beings’ struggle to understand their place in nature, and lack any sign of special, privileged knowledge from a divine intelligence. They are no more magic than Shakespeare’s plays, which means they might be good and interesting historical literary works, but only contain truths that were accepted as common knowledge at the time.

What always annoys me is that they expend so much wind telling us that their faith is not a science project, and that it is so unfair to try and impose standards for truth and understanding on it, that they never bother to get around to telling us what it is. At best we get a thesaurus dump: a flurry of adjectives and adverbs attached to a set of nebulous terms — but something does not become more true in correlation with the floweriness of the language. And sometimes we get outright nonsense, like this:

Science and religion ask different questions about different things. Where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description.

For those not up on the lingo, ontology refers to the nature of things, and their relationships. It’s actually an important topic in biology — systematists, obviously, but also in my molecular biology background it’s a major concern in understanding the genome. Figuring out the relationships between genes is genetic ontology, and it’s something lots of people are studying! I have two major objections to that statement, though.

  1. If religion is about ontology, it’s fantasy ontology. Trying to puzzle out the relationships of gods and humans in the absence of any evidence that gods even exist is a silly game. Let’s start talking more about the marriage of Zeus and Hera, or the bizarre father-son dynamic of Odin and Thor.

  2. You really shouldn’t talk about ontology without epistemology. The only mention of that big subject, though, is to accuse atheists of “epistemic arrogance”. It’s true, though, that atheists and scientists think it’s very important to know how we know something, and it’s absurd to pretend that theists don’t, even if they are just taking the stupid “goddidit” shortcut.

But all that is par for the course for apologists. Deny, deny, deny; name-drop some philosophers; fling around some airy deepities; express profound indignance that anyone would dare to question the authority of ancient cultural dogmas and traditions. My eyes glaze over. They have no substance. Goodbye.

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