On quoting scientists-5: Religious scientists’ beliefs about god

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

When scientists who are also religious believers are quoted as to why they believe in god, their reasons almost always fall into one of two classes. (I am excluding those who believe in the literal truth of their religious texts and, in my opinion, have effectively rejected science altogether.)

One is the ever-popular Argument from Personal Incredulity. This goes as follows:

1. There is no positive evidence for god.
2. But X (insert your preferred natural phenomenon here) is amazing.
3. I don’t understand how X could have come about by natural processes.
4. Hence god must have done it.
5. Hence god exists.

The other is a self-serving circular argument that is driven by emotional needs:

1. There is no positive evidence for god.
2. But I want/need to believe in god.
3. Hence god must be acting in ways that preclude leaving any evidence.
4. Hence the absence of credible evidence for god is evidence for my belief that god chooses to act in ways that do not leave any evidence.
5. Hence god exists.

New atheists suggest that the following reasoning is simpler and makes more sense:

1. There is no positive evidence for god.
2. Hence there is no reason to believe in god.

It is in essence the advice that Bertrand Russell gave in his book Skeptical Essays, vol. I (1928):

I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it is true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion become common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it.

I must say that I find that I find the willingness of those few scientists to express belief in anything more than a Slacker God somewhat surprising because it so fundamentally contradicts the basic assumptions under which science operates. The population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), who did so much to advance the theory of evolution by natural selection by placing it on a firm mathematical footing, explained that he was an atheist simply as a result of his desire for consistency:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

But this kind of desire to have a unified and consistent worldview is surprisingly rare. What religious scientists do is tacitly compartmentalize their thinking into two worlds: their scientific world where god does not act, and their religious world where god lives and acts. The word ‘tacitly’ is important. As long as you do not specify how this two-world system actually operates, you can ignore the huge contradictions that exist.

What I would like to ask the scientists who believe in god is the following question: Are you an atheist when you do scientific experiments, not allowing the hypothesis of god’s action entering at all? If so, why do you have one set of beliefs when doing science and another set for all the other areas of your life?

The only way to make sense of this double standard is to assume that god thinks as follows:

If I feel like it, I may once in a while cure a sick person, while most of the time letting them die, sometimes cruel and horrible deaths. Once in a while I may avert a hurricane or tsunami from a populated area though most of the time I will let it destroy thousands of homes and people. I may save a few people in a plane crash just for the hell of it while killing off the rest. I may allow one baby to live and be rescued days after an earthquake that killed of its entire family and town, because I know my followers get a kick out of things like that and will rejoice in the ‘miracle’. I will let an insane killer mow down many people in a crowded building just so that those whom he misses think that I picked them out to save. I will allow child rapist-murderers to get away with these and other horrendous crimes. I will create diseases that kill millions of people.

But I will never, ever, interfere with a scientist’s experiments and mess up their search for scientific laws.

Because that would be wrong.

A physicist colleague of mine, a well-regarded scientist, is also an observant Jew. I once asked him how he reconciled his scientific work, which excludes supernatural intervention and explanations, with his belief in the Bible with all its stories of god messing around with the laws of the universe. He suggested that he thought that god used to do miracles and then decided around 2,000 years ago to not do any more.

“Why?” I asked.
“He must be having his reasons” he replied.

By invoking that ad hoc strategem, he was able to believe in the truth of the Bible and also avoid having to deal with the god hypothesis in his research. I think all religious scientists in the end adopt similar self-serving views. They just compartmentalize things differently and idiosyncratically depending on their personal beliefs and needs and preferences.

This is why I think Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins was exactly right when he said: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.”

POST SCRIPT: Interview

I was interviewed recently about an article that I had published called Death to the Syllabus! where I argued that our classrooms and syllabi had become too authoritarian and controlling, and that we needed to try and create a more collegial atmosphere in out classes if we were to achieve true learning. You can find the 25-minute podcast of the interview here.

On quoting scientists-4: God as metaphor

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

If one looks at the quotes of scientists used by religious believers, one sees that they fall into a familiar pattern. One is to take the metaphorical use of the word god by some scientists and imply that these imply belief in a real god. One of the most common examples is the popularity amongst religious people of a statement in Stephen Hawking’s best-selling book A Brief History of Time that is often quoted this way: “[I]f we discover a complete theory…then we should know the mind of God”. It has been seized upon by religious people to imply that Hawking believes in god, and is a prime example of this practice of ‘quote mining’.

But Hawking, like Albert Einstein, is using god as a metaphor for complete knowledge, as can be seen in the full passage from which the quote is taken:

If we discover a complete theory, it should be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God. (my emphasis)

In a BBC interview, he was asked to further clarify his statement that we might one day know the mind of god and his answer clearly indicates that his idea of god is nothing like the god that religious people believe in.

It seems that the universe is governed by a set of scientific laws. One might say that these laws were the work of god but it would be an impersonal god who did not intervene in the universe apart from setting the laws. What I meant when I said we would know the mind of god was that if we discovered the complete set of laws and understood why the universe existed we would be in the position of god… One could define god as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as god. They mean a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible. (my emphasis)

Einstein was someone else who loved to use god as a metaphor in the same way as Hawking, and people have similarly seized on those quotes as evidence for at least a Slacker God. But Einstein viewed belief in god as a “childish superstition”. In a letter written just a year before his death, he said:

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this… For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.

Some scientists throw in god into their statements because it is a sure-fire way of drawing media interest. Physicists in particular seem to be prone to gratuitously using god as a metaphor. Leon Lederman gave his 1994 book the title The God Particle, which was his idea of a cute name for the Higgs boson, a particle that is predicted to play a crucial role in the standard model of particle physics but has not been detected as yet. Then there was this statement last week by two physicists speculating about why the Higgs boson (which is what the newly constructed massive Large Hadron Collider is designed to create) has been so hard to detect.

“It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck,” Dr. Nielsen said in an e-mail message. In an unpublished essay, Dr. Nielson said of the theory, “Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God.” It is their guess, he went on, “that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.”

One can be sure that some religious people will seize on this statement as evidence for those scientists’ belief in god.

But what Hawking or Einstein or Darwin or Dawkins or whomever believes about god is ultimately irrelevant. Unlike some religious people who unquestioningly accept what the Pope or other religious people or the authors of their religious texts say, atheists reject belief in god because there is no evidence for it and not because of any authority. That’s it. Nothing more. If Richard Dawkins were to suddenly announce that he had had a vision of god and become a Christian, that would no doubt cause considerable surprise, shock even, but would not change anything about the existential status of god unless Dawkins could provide evidence that what he had experienced was not just a delusion or a psychotic episode but really was credible evidence of god’s existence.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on Democratic opponents of the public option

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On quoting scientists-3: What about statements about god?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I have said in the previous two posts that we should take scientists seriously when they talk about science (even outside their immediate fields of study) because they have their reputation for credibility at stake and they value that more than almost anything else professionally.

But what about when scientists go even farther afield and infer from that what they know about science to what they believe about god? Then the strength of their case rests only on the quality of the argument they make and the nature of the inferential reasoning they use. It does not rest on their scientific expertise except as far as the truth claims of the science on which they base their arguments is concerned. This affects the way we should use and evaluate the use of quotes.

The only purpose of using quotes in these cases is because the author has said something very succinctly or pithily and one wants to use their words in order to give them proper credit for expressing an idea. The quote by itself is never evidence either for or against the existence of god and the supernatural, but it is evidence as to the beliefs of the person who made the quote about the phenomenon. So a quote about what Darwin believed and said about god would not be evidence for or against god. But when it comes to the issue of Darwin’s views on the existence of god, what he actually said would be relevant and well worth quoting.

Religious people tend to misunderstand this. They sometimes comb through the writings of famous dead scientists to find quotes that seem to suggest a belief in god, and use them as if it strengthens the case for god. This is a waste of time because it doesn’t. For example, Charles Darwin died not believing in god. While there is no doubt whatsoever that his theory of evolution has made god increasingly redundant and strengthened the case for atheism, his disbelief by itself is not evidence against the existence of god.

Darwin’s disbelief bothers some religious people and they think that if they could show that he was a believer in god, that discovery would undermine atheism. Such people sometimes even repeat the thoroughly debunked story of him having had a deathbed conversion to Christianity or make a big deal about the fact that Darwin explicitly rejected the label of atheist and embraced the term agnostic. They are misguided in their efforts. Neither of those things are relevant to the point that the theory of evolution seriously undermines belief in the existence of god.

Even if Darwin actually had made a deathbed conversion to Christianity, it would not prove anything about god either way. All it would have shed light on was about Darwin’s state of mind as he lay dying. After all, his co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection Alfred Russell Wallace later in life seemed to embrace some forms of mysticism. Even the great scientist Isaac Newton believed in god in some form. But all that such stories tell us is what those people believed about those phenomena. By themselves they are not evidence for or against god or the supernatural.

One can sometimes use the consensus views of scientists about religion as evidence for some propositions about religion. As an example, suppose we take the new atheists’ statement that science and religion are incompatible. The basis of this claim is that advances in science have made the god hypothesis increasingly redundant, that there is simply no need to believe in the existence of such an entity, and to invoke it is to turn one’s back on methodological naturalism which is a foundational principle of modern science.

One consequence of this argument is that science as advanced even more, we would expect that the number of disbelieving scientists, especially those who are leaders in their fields and thus more intimately familiar with the frontiers of scientific research, should increase with time. As Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins said: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.”

As a result we might expect some circumstantial evidence in support of the claim that increasing depth of knowledge about science leads to greater disbelief. And there is. In medieval times or earlier there is no evidence that many scientists were disbelievers, unless they were keeping it secret. This is possible since death was a common punishment for heretics. But we have no way of really knowing the situation back then.

But with the enlightenment things began to change for the better. As Edward Larson and Larry Witham reported in a study published in Nature in 1998, at least in the 20th century there has been a steep drop from nearly 28% to 7% in the number of leading scientists who believe in a ‘personal god’, while the number of disbelievers and doubters rose from nearly 74% to 93%. If the numbers had gone the other way, that as science learned more and more about how the world worked that the number of religious scientists increased, then that would cast some doubt on the claim of the new atheists, although such data, depending as it does on people’s beliefs, can never be conclusive about the truth or falsity of any proposition.

Next: God as metaphor

POST SCRIPT: No, let’s not leave it there

Jon Stewart on the vapidity of the cable news shows.

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On quoting scientists-2: When is a quote evidence, and for what?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I myself use direct quotes quite often and attribute them to the source whenever I can. Why?

One reason is simply style. Using quotes make for livelier reading. Inserting quotes set off differently from the rest of the text breaks up the visual monotony of the page, the way that dialogue does in fiction, and introducing the different rhythm of a new writer keeps the reader on her toes.

Another reason is to acknowledge the source of an idea that I am using. In writing a scholarly paper, one is obliged to track down the original source of an idea, not merely the person who brought it to your attention, but in blog writing it is acceptable to quote secondary sources.

Another reason is to introduce readers to other writers whom they may not have heard of before.

A fourth reason is that there are a lot of good writers out there who often express what I want to say much better than I can, so I use their words. I prefer to give direct quotes whenever possible rather than paraphrase because that leaves less room for unintentionally distorting their views. I cite the source whenever I can so that readers can check for themselves the full context of the quote if they think I am misinterpreting the words.

Why is that famous people are quoted more often than unknown people? It may often seem as if the authors of the quotes are being used as authority figures merely because of their fame, and the quotes themselves are evidence for some point of view, as if the beliefs of famous people have more weight. This is not necessarily so. It is more likely that people who are prolific and/or well-known and/or good writers get quoted more often because they have written more and are read more than obscure or poor writers.

Does the fame of the author give them more credibility? Yes sometimes, but only so far as what they say reflects their detailed knowledge of their subject. For example, when I make assertions about fields about which I have no direct knowledge, I like to quote the words of scholars or people whom I have confidence have actually studied the issue and have a reputation for presenting their subject with appropriate scholarly caution. This naturally skews the quotes in favor of well-known scholars since then I do not have to go through the dreary exercise of first establishing the quoted person’s credentials in the field. Quotes by Richard Dawkins on evolution and Albert Einstein on physics have to be taken very seriously. Dawkins on physics and Einstein on evolution, not so much. Sarah Palin on evolution or physics, not at all.

Why do we take the words of scientists and other academic scholars seriously when they are talking about their own fields? Because academia works by peer review. The peers of scientists who are in a position to independently check their work would strongly challenge them if they were saying wrong things about the science, and in the absence of such critiques one can assume that they are expressing the consensus views of their field, even if there are some scientists who disagree with them.

The fact that there are some scientists outside the consensus does not weaken the consensus claims unless the theory really is experiencing a crisis, and it is usually fairly obvious when that is the case. As an example, in physics there are still some scientists who dispute the theory of relativity or the big bang, but those theories remain the consensus views of the community. There is no crisis there. When the consensus view among physicists is that the structure of the entire physical universe has the potential to be explained and understood using mathematical laws without any supernatural intervention, one has to take this view seriously, unless one can provide evidence against those consensus views. Assertions by religious people and theologians of the existence of supernatural forces simply do not carry anywhere near the same weight.

So when Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins or any working biologist describes biological phenomena and the science behind it, their words definitely have greater credibility than those of non-biologists. The consensus view amongst biologists is that all the biological complexity that we see around us could easily have come about mainly by natural selection without any hidden mechanisms or supernatural intervention. As physicist Sean Carroll says:

Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It’s not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas.

It is because of this consensus amongst biologists that we take the idea of evolution seriously, and discount supernatural explanations.

But we take academic scholars somewhat seriously even when they venture a little further afield, outside their narrow fields of expertise. The reason for this is that the most important thing to a working scholar is his or her credibility in the eyes of other scientists, and the more well known they are, the more effort they put into protecting that. This makes most scientists cautious about saying things about any subject that will earn them the scorn of their peers.

So serious scientists who need to express an opinion in a field outside their own specialty will usually check with scientists in that field to make sure they are getting the science right. I am currently reading Richard Dawkins’s latest book The Greatest Show on Earth where he marshalls all the evidence in favor of evolution. In the process he talks about radiometric dating and continental drift, which lie in the fields of physics and geology and are outside his range of direct expertise. But it was clear to me that he had consulted knowledgeable people in those fields before he had used those arguments as evidence because it would be embarrassing for a scientist to err about any area of science.

Next: What about when scientists talk about god?

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart of the Democrats messing up health care reform

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On quoting scientists-1: The numbers game

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I recently received an email the subject line of which said, “Some leading and Nobel prize winner scientists view [sic] on God.” The contents of the email consisted solely of 25 brief quotes, all in support of the existence of god, with no further explanation.

I am not sure what the point of this kind of exercise is since the email author did not explain. Is it to show that there are scientists who are also religious? If so, there is no need to make the case because no atheist denies that fact, so producing such lists serves no purpose than identifying some of the religious scientists by name.

In fact, one should be able to find even more than 25. The National Academy of Science is widely recognized as constituting only the leading scientists. It currently has about 2100 members. In response to a survey, 7% of NAS members said they believe in a personal god defined by the statement “a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man … to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer.” This is a far more active deity than the Slacker God of some accommodationists, so the email writer should have been able to dig up about 150 members of the NAS who have nice things to say about god.

If the point of the exercise is to impress atheists with the number of scientists who are religious, then this is the wrong way to go, since there are far more skeptics than believers in the NAS. About 72% are outright nonbelievers and another 21% are doubtful or agnostic. So if it comes down to a numbers game, believers lose by a landslide.

This reminds me of the time when the Discovery Institute, the organization that was behind intelligent design, issued a list of 103 people with doctorates in any field who had signed on to the following statement: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” They even placed an ad touting the list as an argument against the theory of evolution.

In response, the National Center for Science Education started Project Steve, consisting of a list of scientists who were willing to sign on to the following statement:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

The gimmick was that the signatories were limited to scientists who had names that were variations on some form of Stephen, such as Steve, Stephanie, Stefan, and so on. They got 367 scientists (including Stephen Hawking) to sign which, since the name Steve only represents 1% of the population, can be extrapolated to suggest that 36,700 scientists support the statement.

The whole point of Project Steve was to make fun of the idea that numbers of scientists behind a proposition alone is an argument for anything and if someone should think so, it is going to be a definite loser for religious beliefs.

But the email made me think about the uses of quotes by scientists in general. I myself use direct quotes quite often and attribute them to the source whenever I can. Why do I use them? What purposes do they serve?

Next: When do quotes serve as evidence for anything?

POST SCRIPT: Tuesdays with Moron?

Bill Maher speculates on the other ghostwriters who were considered for Sarah Palin’s book and the titles they suggested.

The Banana Man chronicles-5: Fear and loathing in Jesus Land

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

As readers may have noticed I have been quite harsh, more so than is my custom, with Ray Comfort and his evangelistic efforts, derisively referring to him as Banana Man and ridiculing his pathetic attempts at combating the theory of evolution. Why? Because I think that the kind of message that he preaches (which is very similar to the ones I used to hear as a young man in evangelical churches and in organizations like Youth for Christ and Campus Crusade for Christ) is positively evil.

Note that I am not saying that Comfort himself is evil. For all I know, he may be a perfectly charming man, kind to animals and children. But his message to people is evil though he, like all such evangelists, prattles endlessly about how they are spreading the ‘good news’ of Jesus to people.

What I find despicable is that Banana Man and other evangelists try desperately to make their listeners miserable by creating in them a sense of self-loathing (“The Law of God shows us that the best of us is nothing but a wicked criminal”, on page 47 of his introduction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) and an inordinate fear of death, so that he can then bribe them to accept Jesus in order to assuage the terror that he himself has helped create. He provides direct support for Sigmund Freud’s suspicion that fear of death is the basis of religion.

Look at the things Banana Man and almost all evangelists of his stripe say to frighten people about death.

We will be without excuse when we stand before God because he gave us our conscience to know right from wrong…On Judgment Day, when God judges you, will you be found innocent or guilty of breaking this Law? Think before you answer. Will you go to heaven or hell? (p. 43)

All of humanity stands on the edge of eternity. We are all going to die. We will all have to pass through the door of death. It could happen to us in twenty years, or in six months … or today. For most of humanity, death is a huge and terrifying plummet into the unknown. (p. 41)

They are flat out wrong. What happens after we die is not unknown and should not be terrifying. Death and what happens after death is really quite simple and easy to understand. If you accept evolution, then you should know that all living things are related to each other. We are all part of one tree of life. We can be as certain about what happens after our own death as we can be about anything, because our death is no different from that of a banana or bee or a fish dying, and we know what happens in those cases.

Overwhelming evidence points to the fact that when we or any other living thing dies, all that happens is that our biological functions cease and we become just an inanimate mass of atoms. That’s it. There is no credible, objective evidence whatsoever that death is anything else but that. Life after death, heaven and hell, are all just figments of the imagination. Just as when a bird dies, we don’t think that a bird god judges whether it goes to a bird heaven or a bird hell, so it is for us. There is absolutely no reason that our particular branch of the evolutionary tree should have a different fate after death than any other branch.

There is nothing hugely mysterious or terrifying about death. The only emotion that makes sense as one gets older and approaches one’s own death is regret. Regret at not having left the planet in better shape, fought more vigorously for justice, helped others more, learned more things, read more books, seen more films, done more things, seen more places, enjoyed more the company of one’s family and friends, and so on. Regret at not being able to continue enjoying life is the only reasonable reaction to the thought of one’s impending death. But balancing that should be the deep sense of satisfaction that one has experienced the joy of life.

But people like Comfort, instead of allowing people to come to terms with death and relinquishing life peacefully when the time comes, instead try to terrify them for their own selfish purposes. People like him prey on the gullible and weak-minded, those who are not able to see that they are being manipulated. They exploit the reasonable fear people have that the process of dying might be painful, perhaps due to a protracted illness, to imply that people should fear death itself. The ‘comfort’ these evangelists offer believers is that if they believe in Jesus they can avoid hell. (“So you no longer need to be tormented by the fear of death”, p. 49.)

I would be less harsh on them if the ‘salvation’ they offer from fear of death was a one time thing. But the solution that these evangelists offer is not like a vaccine that inoculates for life, that enables people to overcome their fear of death, get on with their lives anew, and live the rest of their lives joyously. Such an outcome would not serve the evangelists’ purpose. They want you to repeatedly seek salvation over and over again and, more importantly, keep sending money to them.

So what they offer instead is a short-term satisfaction that disappears after a day or two. The ‘comfort’ they offer is more like a shot of heroin given to a drug addict, that makes you feel good for the moment, but then the effects wear off, you suffer withdrawal pains, feel miserable, and need to go back for another fix. They seek to create not emotionally healthy people but emotionally stunted drug addicts for Jesus.

I have been to evangelical meetings and know the routine. (The documentary Marjoe gives a revealing look behind the scenes at how they operate.) Week after week the gullible, under relentless condemnation of their sinfulness by the preacher, weepily confess once again what loathsome people they are, how they have strayed and sinned once again, how undeserving they are of god’s love, and then once again ‘give their lives to Jesus’ in order to get their Jesus fix. And they will return the next week to say the same thing.

The message that Comfort and his ilk preach is one that increases misery and self-loathing. It is death-obsessed and life denying.

In reality, life is a precious gift that we must enjoy while we can for as long as we can, and we should seek to have as many others enjoy it as well by seeking justice, being nice to people, and enabling them to enjoy life more too. Then when the time comes for us to die, we should do so gracefully and in peace, grateful for the fact that we have lived.

The atheist Robert Ingersoll said it best: “My creed is that: Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

How joyful and life affirming that creed is! In a few short words, it tells us how to live in a way that makes life better for everyone.

POST SCRIPT: The failures of logic and evidence in support of god

An excellent expose of the fallacious arguments put forward by religious believers. Well worth watching.

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

The Banana Man chronicles-4: The insurmountable problem of theodicy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post I wrote about how Banana Man wants to make sure that you realize that you are a loathsome being because of your repeated sinning. On page 43 of his introduction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Banana Man relentlessly pursues his theme that because god is just you cannot escape from god’s wrath. “To say that there will be no consequences for breaking God’s Law is to say that God is unjust, that he is evil.” It is clearly important to him that god be a macho god, a Rambo among gods, who invariably doles out righteous justice, and is nothing like the wimpy loving and merciful god propagated by those wussy liberal Christians.

To try to prove that point, Banana Man then tells us a tragic and true story:

On February 24, 2005, a nine-year-old girl was reported missing from her home in Homosassa, Florida. Three weeks later, police discovered that she had been kidnapped, brutally raped, and then buried alive. Little Jessica Lunsford was found tied up, in a kneeling position, clutching a stuffed toy.

So how does this incredibly sad story prove his point? Here’s what he says immediately following:

How do you feel toward the man who murdered that helpless little girl in such an unspeakably cruel way? Are you angered? I hope so. I hope you are outraged. If you were completely indifferent to her fate, it would reveal something horrible about your character.

Do you think that God is indifferent to such acts of evil? You can bet your precious soul he is not. He is outraged by them.

The fury of Almighty God against evil is evidence of his goodness. If He wasn’t angered, He wouldn’t be good. We cannot separate God’s goodness from His anger. Again, if God is good by nature, He must be unspeakably angry at wickedness.

So what does his mighty, righteous, and just god do in his fury to avenge this monstrous crime? Apart from being outraged, nothing at all as far as we can see, because Banana Man abruptly drops this topic and moves on to discuss other things. Even by the low standards of Banana Man, this ‘argument’ seems like a complete non sequitur. As far as I can figure, the point of this story is that Banana Man is saying his BFF god must be outraged because otherwise he wouldn’t be good. If he is good, he cannot be evil. But if god is not just, he would be evil. Since he is not evil, he must be just.

I think it is always interesting how religious people like Banana Man are always so sure that they know how god feels about things and what he will do to us after we die, while at the same time claiming total ignorance of why it is that we see absolutely no evidence at all while we are alive that god does anything at all.

But gratuitously introducing the sad story of Jessica actually works against him. If god is always just, then surely that must mean that in his eyes the little girl died a horrible death because she deserved it? If justice is that important to god, and she did not deserve to die, then god should have prevented her death. What’s the use in god being outraged by injustice if he doesn’t do anything about it? It would be like someone shouting at the TV when he sees something he dislikes. But unlike humans, Banana Man’s god supposedly has the power to change the programming. In fact, he writes the script for all the shows. So he is in a unique position to prevent the outrage in the first place rather than raging about it impotently afterwards. Why did he write a script in which Jessica died if he was going to be outraged by her death?

Banana Man does not even try to address this question because it is the age-old and insurmountable problem of theodicy, of why god allows evil if he is omnipotent and omniscient. The best that religious people can come up with is that god has some mysterious plan that we are not privy to now but will (conveniently) learn later, after we die or when the Rapture comes. In other words, we have the predictable reappearance of the ‘mysterious ways clause’ that religious believers have to keep invoking whenever they are trapped in a corner from which there is no escape.

The reason that Banana Man does not proffer even this pathetic excuse but simply ignores the issue is that if the death of Jessica was part of this grand and secret plan, then god should not be outraged, which undermines his argument for god being always just and unmerciful. In addition, up until that point he had given the impression that he is like Jeeves to Bertie Wooster’s god: He knows his master’s likes and dislikes, his moods, and his policies, maybe even his favorite brand of breakfast cereal. Creating that impression of intimacy is what he thinks gives him authority to make sweeping pronouncements about what god thinks of us and wants from us. To suddenly use ignorance of god as a defense would weaken his entire argument.

Next: Fear and loathing in the service of Jesus.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on why he doesn’t do anything to prevent suffering

A great description of all the problems of theodicy and the banal excuses people proffer for god when tragedies strike.

The Banana Man Chronicles-3: You loathsome sinners

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

As we saw in the previous post, Banana Man goes to great lengths to make the case that everyone has broken all (or almost all) the ten commandments and thus we are all loathsome sinners and surely going to hell. The idea is to make people very, very scared.

In his attempt to scare the daylights out of people, Banana Man is not only fighting unbelieving evolutionists, he also has to combat the pernicious influence of liberal Christians who are undermining his spreading of fear by claiming that god is loving and merciful and won’t really send people to hell for eternity because that would be cruel.

Banana Man has little patience for a god who is such a wuss. One can see why. It is essential for the strategy of evangelists like him that people be terrified of going to hell. So Banana Man moves to close that loophole of a softie god. Since god seems to be Banana Man’s BFF, only he is allowed to make pronouncements on what god is really like. As he confidently says on p. 45, “[T]he God we are speaking about is nothing like the commonly accepted image. He is not a benevolent Father-figure, who is happily smiling upon sinful humanity.”

He then pulls off a neat trick. He says that assigning false properties to god is the same as worshipping an idol, and thus those liberal Christians who preach the existence of a loving and merciful god are also violating the second commandment in addition to all their other sins, and thus getting into even deeper doo-doo. He says (p. 42) “That [loving and merciful] god does not exist; he’s a figment of the imagination. To create a god in your mind (your own image of God) is something the Bible calls “idolatry.” Idolaters will not enter heaven.” So take that, liberal Christians! You are doomed too.

And just in case you think that you might still escape because some of your sins were really trivial or even only thoughts in your mind, or that god is too busy with more important things (you know, like wars genocide, disease) to know or care about your own petty sins, Banana Man quickly disillusions you:

Nothing is hidden from His pure and holy eyes. He is outraged by torture, terrorism, abortion, theft, lying, adultery, fornication, pedophilia, homosexuality, and blasphemy. He also sees our thought-life, and He will judge us for the hidden sins of the heart: for lust, hatred, rebellion, greed, unclean imaginations, ingratitude, selfishness, jealousy, pride, envy, deceit, etc. (p. 44)

That pretty much covers everything. I was curious how he arrived at terrorism on that list since that is a modern political concept. Also since god actually encouraged the devil to torture Job, I would have thought that he approved of torture. I don’t recall anything in the Bible against pedophilia either. In fact, god urges his chosen people to capture young virgins as desirable partners for sex, and these women are even deemed by god to be suitable spoils of war, with no mention about a lower limit for age. So rape seems to be ok with god too. But maybe Banana Man has found a Biblical passage somewhere that alludes to this or is extending from the fact that he believes that all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sinful. Also, I noticed that he excludes incest in his list of prohibitions. Maybe that is because the Bible is full of god’s people indulging in this practice (I’m looking at you, Lot) and not being punished by god.

But the main point is that he wants you to realize that you are a loathsome despicable being and are going to be punished severely for all your innumerable and repeated sins. “To say that there will be no consequences for breaking God’s Law is to say that God is unjust, that he is evil.” (p. 43)

Things look pretty bleak for everyone at this point. What to do? He then goes on describe what other religions offer to solve this predicament and says that they do not provide escape from the awful penalties that await all of us.

Hinduism is a loser because all it offers is reincarnation, with one’s status in the next life determined by what one does in this one. Since Banana Man has gone to great lengths to show that you are a despicable human being who has repeatedly broken almost all the commandments, this means that your next life is going to be pretty bad. In fact, following his logic that we are unavoidably sinners, you are condemned to a steady downward spiral of future lives, perhaps ending up at the bottom as Glenn Beck. So reincarnation is not worth embracing Hinduism for.

Buddhism is a loser because it does not have a god and so there is no one to offer you salvation from your sins. Banana Man can’t see the point of a religion without god, let alone get his mind around that idea. Besides, though he does not seem to know this or at least think it worth mentioning, Buddhism is like Hinduism in having reincarnation too.

Islam is a loser because although it does provide for salvation, it says that salvation can be achieved by doing religious works. That does not sound so bad but Banana Man contemptuously dismisses it, saying that god will see through this as a mere bribe and it won’t work so you won’t be saved from eternity in hell. Remember that Banana Man is god’s BFF and knows exactly what he likes and dislikes.

As I pointed out yesterday, Judaism’s failings are ignored these days by evangelicals for political reasons.

This finally gets him to making the case for Christianity. Ready? Here’s the pitch: None of us can avoid sin (Ok, you’ve already belabored that point.). The punishment for sin involves eternal suffering in hell. (Ok, you’ve rubbed that in too.) There is only one way to avoid this harsh punishment. Only Christianity offers hope because Jesus died for our sins and took them upon himself on the cross and thus we have salvation from hell. Hence only the Christian god is worth betting on.

Really, that is his entire argument. Not only his, but is the foundation of Christianity. Like all Christians, he does not seem to realize that this makes absolutely no sense.

Note that that the framework of his argument starts with the assumption that his own religion is correct, and he then judges all other religions according to that framework. Naturally they compare badly. He cannot see that people in other religions are also going through the same self-serving exercise, which is why they each think that their own religion is the best. None of them seem to understand (or want to acknowledge) that to meaningfully compare different groups of things, one needs criteria that transcend the particulars of each and are arrived at independently of any one of them.

Next: The problem of theodicy raises its ugly head again.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on The Colbert Report in 2006

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Richard Dawkins
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Michael Moore

The Banana Man Chronicles-2: What’s really on Banana Man’s mind

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the first post in this series, I wrote about Banana Man’s arguments against evolution which, together with a short biography of Darwin, constitutes about 40 pages of his introduction to Origins. But even Banana Man must know that there was nothing new there. It was clear to me that this was just an excuse to gain attention and on the final pages 39-50, he gets down to the real issue that concerns him, which is to get you to come to Jesus.

Banana Man has a bigger challenge than the sophisticated religious intellectuals who are content to argue for the existence of merely a Slacker God. Such people like Karen Armstrong, Robert Wright, and H. E. Baber only wish to believe in the existence of something, anything at all, however small or inconsequential, that is outside the reach of scientific investigation. They then give that the name ‘god’ and move on. The existence of their god leads to no practical consequences whatsoever and the world would be indistinguishable whether their god existed or not, but this does not seem to bother them. For this reason I call such people ‘religious atheists‘.

Banana Man, however, believes in the literal truth of the Bible, in Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection, in other words the whole Christian ball of wax. So he has a bigger task than the religious atheists. He not only has to argue for the existence of a supergod who intervenes in the universe all the time, he has to argue for existence of one and only one very specific god, the Jesus-god that he happens to believe in.

In order to achieve this you would think that, at the very least, he would try to show that the god of Christianity is the true god and all the other gods are false. But religious people cannot really argue for the falsity of other people’s gods because those same arguments can be used against their own god. So instead of true and false, Banana Man argues that Christianity offers goodies and rewards that the others don’t, which makes it preferable to believe in. It is like a store that competes against other stores in sales for the identical item by offering sale prices or throwing in a free toaster, and then suggesting that the resulting higher sales means that they are selling the genuine article while their competitors are selling counterfeit. The argument makes no sense.

So using a long and complicated metaphor involving what would be most useful if one were forced to jump out of a plane (seemingly inspired by seeing the Disney film Up), he tries to justify why it is better to be a Christian than to be a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.

Interestingly, he does not include Judaism in his list of loser religions. If you think about it, in his eyes Judaism should be an even bigger loser than Islam. At least Islam recognizes Jesus as a great prophet and is even willing to concede that god gave him a virgin birth and the power to do miracles, although not conceding that he is god incarnate. As far as Jews ago, Jesus was just an ordinary Jew of his time, if he existed at all.

But Christians in the US have come a long way since the days when they despised Jews as Christ-killers. While antipathy towards Jews may exist among individual Christians, a political alliance has been cemented between right wing Christians and right wing Jews. It is now Christianist policy to talk of the ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage of the US and of ‘Judeo-Christian’ values and be nice to Jews and not say any bad things about them (at least publicly) even though they believe that when the Rapture comes, Jews who haven’t seen the light and come to Jesus are going to slaughtered by god, just like all the other unbelievers.

So how does Banana Man try to persuade the reader that Jesus is the only god they should believe in? Those familiar with Banana Man’s schtick know what to expect. He basically does the same thing that he and Crocoduck do when they are out evangelizing in the streets, which is that they accost random people and go through all the ten commandments, one by one, asking people which ones they’ve broken.

Just to be sure that you realize you have broken a lot and get a perfect or almost perfect score of 10, he takes liberties with the wording of the commandments. He says that any use of the word god other than in prayer constitutes taking god’s name in vain and is thus a violation of the third commandment. He expands the word ‘murder’ to include hate, justifying the modification by using some quote from Jesus. So if you’ve ever hated anyone, then you’ve broken the sixth commandment against committing murder. Again roping in Jesus, he expands the meaning of the word ‘adultery’ to include sex before marriage and even simple lust, just to make sure you have broken the seventh commandment.

Basically, the idea is to present you with a list of rules that he says that god insists that you follow but which are impossible to obey. The point of all this effort is so that he can then pass judgment on you and say that because you have violated all or almost all of the commandments, you are a disgusting sinner and thus doomed to spending eternity in hell.

So what’s the point? In the next post, we’ll see why he goes to all this trouble.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert interviews Richard Dawkins

Look closely and you will see that Dawkins is wearing a crocoduck tie.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Richard Dawkins
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Michael Moore

By the way, I found a nice image of the crocoduck.

The Banana Man Chronicles-1: The abbreviated version

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

A week or so ago, I wrote about Banana Man and Crocoduck’s excellent new adventure where, on November 19, they are going to give away 50,000 copies of Charles Darwin’s classic book On the Origin of Species on various college campuses (not sure if ours is one of the lucky ones) but with the added bonus of a 50 page introduction by Banana Man.

The Banana Man claims that in those 50 pages he will, using his demonstrated powerful reasoning powers and rhetorical skills that I described in that previous post, demolish the theory of evolution by natural selection that has, for the last century, been the foundation of biology. And who is better able to provide an introduction to one of the greatest works of science than someone whose understanding of evolutionary theory is so deep that he thinks the banana could not have evolved to be so perfectly suited to being eaten by humans and thus had to be directly made by god?

For those who cannot wait until November 19 to see what delights are in store in Banana Man’s introduction, you can see read it here. Oddly, the link to the introduction no longer works, although it was live for more than a week. I don’t know if it is a temporary server glitch or it has been pulled from the site for some reason. I had downloaded the introduction earlier and still have it but you will have to take my word for it about what it contains until the book appears or the link is restored.

For those others who cannot spare the time to read all fifty pages, I have decided to take one for the team and devote some time to prepare a CliffsNotes version of Banana Man’s thesis (with my own commentary added of course) and these will form the topic of posts for this week. The reason I am devoting so much time to this is partly in response to commenter Derek’s point some time ago that I should not devote all my attention on refuting only the sophisticated religious apologists who don’t believe in anything remotely resembling what the average believer thinks, but also examine the views of more traditional believers. The Banana Man is as unlike the sophisticated apologists as one can get. Derek had in mind people like Albert Mohler and Cornelius Van Til who are somewhere in between those two extremes but one has to start somewhere so I will start at the bottom with Banana Man and work myself up from there. Furthermore, a case can be made that the kinds of views expressed by Banana Man have a greater following than those of the others.

Anyway, here is what Banana Man says in his introduction:

Pages 1-4: Short biography of Darwin. Banana Man ends this section with “At the age of seventy-three, Charles Darwin went to meet his Maker at Down house on April 19, 1882, with his wife, Emma, by his side.”

When I first read this, I thought that Banana Man was saying that god lived at Down house and that was where Charles went after he died and that Emma went along with him, and thus must have died at the same time as Charles. Of course, this is not true but is the kind of misunderstanding that can arise when you use soothing religious euphemisms like ‘went to meet his Maker’ instead of the straightforward ‘died’.

Since Darwin was an unrepentant agnostic right to the end, we have to assume that the Maker scolded him and sent the naughty boy to his room without dessert.

Pages 4-8: Timeline of Darwin’s life.

It is after this that the ‘attack’ on the theory of evolution begins in earnest. Given the level of Banana Man’s understanding of the theory, his attack on Darwin is like (to use the late Molly Ivins’ memorable phrase) being gummed by a newt.

Pages 9-15: Shorter version:

“Wow! Isn’t DNA amazing? It contains such a lot of information! It couldn’t have occurred by chance. Hence god exists.”

In other words, we get an argument from personal incredulity, based on the willful misrepresentation that evolution by natural selection occurs by pure chance.

Pages 15-22: Shorter version:

“There are no transitional forms. Hence evolution is wrong. Hence god exists.”

Sadly, Banana Man disses his faithful sidekick Kirk Cameron by not including the latter’s ingenious crocoduck argument. Why the omission? Does he also think Cameron’s argument is ludicrous? Et tu, Brute?

Pages 22- 28: Shorter version:

“I don’t understand how the blood circulatory system or the eye came about. Hence god exists.”

In other words, another argument from personal incredulity. Oddly enough, Banana Man does not include as another example the very banana that he had earlier described as providing irrefutable proof of god’s existence because it was so perfectly suited for human eating and impossible to conceive of as having evolved. Given that he will be forever after permanently associated with that fruit, the omission is inexplicable.

Page 29: Shorter version:

“Some vestigial organs may have some purpose. Hence god exists.”

Pages 30-36: Shorter version:

“Darwin was a racist and misogynist. Hitler was evil and an evolutionist. Hence Darwin was evil like Hitler. Hence the theory of evolution is bad. Hence god exists.”

Pages 36-39: Shorter version:

“Darwin and Albert Einstein and some other well-known figures in scientific history were not atheists. Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick cannot prove that god does not exist. Hence god exists.”

This was pretty much it as far as arguing against the theory of evolution went. Frankly, I was disappointed. Given all the money and resources that Banana Man was pouring into this venture, I had expected better arguments or at least a mention of those golden oldies, the banana and the crocoduck.

As one can see, these are the same old arguments against evolution that have been thoroughly refuted over and over again. Biologist Jerry Coyne makes a clinical dissection of these arguments against evolution here.

I think that Herbert Spencer’s response in 1891 is still the best: “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.”

Next: The last ten pages where Banana Man gets to the point of the exercise.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity explains how baptism by water came about

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