Sounds familiar

Damned social networking sites! They’ve been destroying people’s lives since the 17th century, when the hot app was called “Coffeehouse” rather than “Facebook”.

Enthusiasm for coffeehouses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented that coffeehouses were distracting people who ought to be doing useful work, rather than networking and sharing trivia with their acquaintances.

When coffee became popular in Oxford and the coffeehouses selling it began to multiply, the university authorities objected, fearing that coffeehouses were promoting idleness and diverting students from their studies. Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian, was among those who denounced the enthusiasm for the new drink. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university?” he asked. “Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.”

And look! Muslims were wrecking Christiandom even then! And don’t get me started on those students, screwing around in idle chitchat all the time…

The Dawkins Challenge…doesn’t even get out of the starting gate

Are there any good Christian writers who write about Christianity? I’m always astounded at what a confusing mess they generate when they try to explain their faith.

Case in point: some theologian named William Carroll has issued something he calls The Dawkins Challenge. I read halfway through it before I could puzzle out what it was about. He’s annoyed that Richard Dawkins (along with many other atheists I could name) has knocked the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Dawkins opined both in Australia and previously at the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. that people should be encouraged to confront Roman Catholics about transubstantiation. Do they really hold the “utterly nutty belief that a wafer turns into the body of a first-century Jew just because a priest blessed it?” Such a view is “barking mad.”

He goes on and on about Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, and I thought he was going to get around to issuing some challenge to them…but no, it’s completely different. He’s challenging Catholics to defend themselves against charges that their beliefs are silly. Fair enough, and a good idea; please do. I’d love to hear your sensible, rational defense of transubstantiation. Go ahead, be bold and open in your beliefs and explain them!

So this is what we get from William Carroll.

The body of Christ, present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, although real (neither symbolic nor metaphorical), is vastly different from the ordinary bodies subject to empirical analysis. It is sacramental presence and theology, aided by philosophy, that help to make intelligible what is believed.


Well, I guess you showed Richard Dawkins…that he’s completely right and that your beliefs are “utterly nutty” and “barking mad”.

I think Carroll recognizes that his explanation is pretty damned stupid, because he wraps it up in excuses, claiming that the conclusions of physics are also hard to comprehend and often defy common sense. But what he really doesn’t understand is that those conclusions are a consequence of mathematical reasoning and actual experimental observations — they aren’t just made up, but are derived from the real, natural world, and can be evaluated objectively no matter what your religious upbringing. The accreted natterings of Catholic apologists have no such virtues.

You can’t say something is “real”, and then claim it exhibits none of the properties of any other real objects, and can’t ever be examined or analyzed empirically. That’s pretty much a good definition of “not real”.

Don’t diss gods in Indonesia

Atheist Alliance International is condemning the jail sentence for Alexander Aan. Aan is the Indonesian man who wrote “god does not exist” on a facebook page, and has now been sentenced to 2½ years in prison for blasphemy. I’m mentally adding up the number of years I’d get for Pharyngula…I’m just relieved I’m not posting from Indonesia.

The whole ruling is confused and inconsistent, but that’s what religion does to you. Here’s an interview with a newspaper editor that’s also confusing: he can’t come out and say that there’s a problem with this decision, and I can’t tell whether it’s because he agrees with it or he’s afraid to say. The comment about the problem being that they are extending tolerance to intolerant groups (the Muslims) suggests that maybe he is seeing the problem, but is being cautious in expressing it.

The Indonesian constitution mandates freedom of religion, but requires everyone to have a religion. Right. They have a little discussion about Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant place…I’m sorry, I don’t see it. If they ever had such a reputation, it’s gone now.

Why I am an atheist – Natasha Yar-Routh

I’m an atheist because I noticed that what little evidence there is for gods and goddesses, more hearsay really, is equally valid for the lot of them. The problem is the claims made for the nearly 1,000 gods and goddesses are contradictory. Quite simply they can’t all be true, but they can quiet easily all be false. Factor in that we have well tested scientific explanations for much of existence and there is no need for any supernatural beings running around causing trouble.

Natasha Yar-Routh
United States

No! Not Harter!

I am doubly sad: Richard Harter has died, and most of the readers here now probably never heard of him. He was a dry wit who frequented on usenet with brilliant comments; he ought to have been recognized as one of the early bloggers for his idiosyncratic and engrossing web page, Richard Harter’s World, which has been regularly and frequently updated since 1996.

It’s an eclectic page — Harter just seems to have manually linked in lots and lots of web pages of arbitrary stuff; humor, history, science, correspondence, computer science, science fiction, whatever struck his fancy. Go ahead and get sucked into it — it’s about as dangerous as TVTropes that way.

Perhaps even more appropriately, you can read about Harter on

Chiroquackery in Morris, Minnesota

Well, that caught my eye, all bright pink with a bold title touting “The Cancer Cure”, and posted on the bulletin board of the local coffee shop. I read it aghast: it’s a chiropractor trading on tragedy.

Do you see a cancer cure anywhere in there? Chiropractic is not only incapable of curing cancer, it doesn’t even treat cancer. This quack Hamling isn’t even offering to use chiropractic for this person afflicted with cancer — he’s cunningly using her disease to drum up new patients for his clinic, nothing more. I don’t even know why it says “The Cancer Cure” on his sign.

It’s coming from a horrible little clinic in Morris called Accelerated Chiropractic. Now some chiropractors are simply physical therapists (although if I needed physical therapy, I think I’d rather see a certified physical therapist), and I can sympathize with some people finding benefits with them, but others are outright quacks, and there’s an easy way to find out: look for the magic word “subluxation” in their PR.

Subluxations are imaginary. They are the excuse chiropractors use to claim that “traffic jams” in the nervous system cause a host of diseases, from mild pain to cancer, and that their manipulations actually relieve pressure on nerves. Seriously, if chiropractic manipulations of the vertebrae were sufficient to shift the relationship of the bones around in any significant way, they’d be able to shear off nerves all over the place — it’s total nonsense invented by 19th century quacks. And yeah, if you search the Accelerated Chiropractic site, it’s got subluxations everywhere.

It’s the modern equivalent of blaming your ills on leprechauns.

And there’s our local chiroquack, shilling for new patients with a sign advertising a cancer cure, and promising to chase all the little leprechauns out of your body to make you feel better.

I’ve registered a complaint with the local better business bureau. This bozo is disgraceful.

(By the way, whatever you do, never let a chiropractor get anywhere near your neck.)

I can only read Plantinga for the lulz

In a review of a new book by Alvin Plantinga, Christopher Tollefsen claims that Plantinga, “one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries”, has “systematically dismantled…the claims of the new atheists”. I think we can take that about as seriously as his assessment of Crazy Alvin’s status as a philosopher.

I have zero interest in Plantinga’s “philosophy” — what I’ve read of it convinces me that it’s nothing but deranged Christian apologetics gussied up in academic dress, and the words of Plantinga himself pretty much have persuaded me that I couldn’t address him without frequent invocations of the frolics of shithouse rats. But I am interested in how these gyring rodents see the New Atheists — it’s always such an easy confirmation that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The claim of the new atheists is that Darwin’s “Dangerous idea,” as Dennett calls it, proves that there is no divine agency responsible for the world. As Dennett explains, “an impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.” But the claims of Darwin show no such thing: even if Darwinism accurately identifies the mechanism by which evolution has occurred, Plantinga notes, “It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our world without that guidance.”

The emphasis is there in the review; the first sentence just sings with ignorance. Here they are, carping at those New Atheists, and the first thing they say about them is blatantly false: no New Atheist claims to have a disproof of any god. We’re extremely forthright about saying it, too: Richard Dawkins explicitly laid out a scale of belief in The God Delusion, and it seems that every ferocious critic of that book never bothered to read it, because they were all stunned when Dawkins repeated the same thing on television: we don’t have absolute certainty about the nonexistence of a deity. We’re very confident that you might as well go on about your life as if gods don’t exist, but that’s about it.

Plantinga’s reservations at the end of that paragraph are also very silly. Evolution is the mechanism by which species have been shaped throughout the history of the world, and that is a fact; we can concede that there are other mechanisms besides natural selection (and in fact, we study them), and that one possibility, offered so far without evidence, is that intelligent entities have manipulated our ancestors. We don’t think it’s likely or necessary, but OK, it’s possible that one could find evidence supporting such a scenario.

As for Plantinga’s assertion that intelligence was required to create the diversity of life we have, well, please Alvin, at least wipe your filthy feet before spasming out on the carpet.

But there are things that I, as a New Atheist, am certain about, even if I remain open to the possibility of evolutionary interventionists of an undefined nature.

I am certain that “god” is a useless term. It’s utterly incoherent; some people babble about the god of the Christian Bible, which is an anthropomorphic being with vast magic powers and the emotional stability of an 8-year-old on meth. Others talk about an all-pervasive force in the universe, or use meaningless phrases like “the ground state of all being”, or chatter about a reified emotion like “love”. The really annoying thing about discussions with these people is that they’ll cheerfully switch definitions on you in mid-stream. Getting battered because the whole concept of an omnipotent being existing in the form of an Iron Age patriarch in the sky is silly? No problem! Just announce that god is everywhere and in you and that god is love. Trying hard to justify your regressive social policies using an amorphous principle like love, and finding the atheists turning the whole principle of benignity back on you? No problem! Just announce that god so loved us that he became a man, and if you’re opponents reject that concept, they’ll be thrown into Hell by God the Judge.

Plantinga is an excellent example of this theological muddle. On the one hand, he wants to argue for a cosmos-spanning Mind; on the other, a bigoted narrow being with a chosen race and a preferred position for sexual intercourse, who wants to be cosseted and praised for all eternity. Pick a clear definition for god, and be consistent about it, please. And then persuade all the other theologians that your definition is the correct one. Then come argue with the atheists when you know what the hell you’re talking about.

I am certain that theists have no credible evidence for their claims. Oh, sure, they can say their holy book says so, which is a kind of weak evidence; they can recite anecdotes; they can point to people who believe. But that’s about it, and it’s not adequate. I want to see independently verifiable empirical evidence that can be assessed independently of one’s sociocultural background; I want to see the stuff that would convince a Christian that Islam is an accurate description of the universe, or vice versa, and that would persuade a scientist that here’s some preliminary support for a phenomenon that is worth pursuing. Theologians don’t have that. They’ve never had that.

Religions have grown most often by the sword, or by fostering fear and emotional dependency, or by hijacking secular institutions and forcing beliefs on others, but they never expand by right of reason. Why isn’t a specific god-belief a universal, like mathematics or physics? Because unlike math or physics, religion doesn’t actually deliver on its promises. The power of religion has always been in psychological manipulation of the human mind, empowering a priesthood at the expense of genuine human advancement and understanding.

I am certain that evolution occurred. The evidence is in; the process occurred and is occurring, there are no known barriers to natural processes producing modern life from proto-life/chemistry over the course of 3.8 billion years, and all the evidence we do have shows modern forms being incrementally modified versions of earlier forms. We don’t know all the details, of course, and just maybe someone somewhere could discover a real hurdle that could not have been overcome without intelligent aid, but I know for a fact that no creationist has ever come up with a defensible objection, and that nearly all the creationists who pontificate so ponderously on the impossibility of biology, Plantinga among them, always turn out to be profoundly ignorant of the science. There’s a good inverse correlation between knowledge of biology and certainty that evolution can’t work.

So Plantinga-style arguments, that evolution cannot occur without intelligent guidance, therefore god, leave me cold. They begin with a false premise, easily refuted by the evidence, and therefore the credibility of their entire line of reasoning collapses. This true of all of the Intelligent Design creationism arguments that rest on showing natural selection (it’s the only mechanism they’ve heard of, sadly) doesn’t work, therefore you have to accept the only other alternative they offer, which is godly intervention. Not only is it bad science, it’s bad logic.

Unfortunately for them, the alternative to taking potshots at an explanation that works is to provide specific positive evidence for design, and they can’t do that. For instance, they could say, “My designer enhanced human brain performance by introducing a specific allele of microcephalin into select populations 37,000 years ago”, but then they’d have to face those awkward, demanding questions from scientists: “How do you know? What’s your evidence? Why couldn’t natural mechanisms of genetic variance have produced that specific allele?” And we know they can’t cope with those questions, because their only reason for believing that is that they wish it were so.

That’s all Plantinga has got: a peculiar historical myth-figure that he can’t define without making his whole enterprise look ridiculous, a total lack of reasonable objective evidence to support his myth, and a reliance on criticizing a science he doesn’t understand in the hope that if he stirs up enough doubt, people will cling to his myth rather than all the other myths swirling about in the confusion of his own creation. It’s pathetic. And this is from “one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries”? How sad that would be for philosophy, if it were true.