Happy 80th!

Don’t know how I missed this, but James Randi turned 80 yesterday. And here I was thinking he was already well into his octogenerianosity! Well, good, this means we’ll have him around for many more TAMs to come. Happy slightly belated birthday to the man to whom almost every skeptic alive today owes a debt of gratitude, for helping us learn how to throw off the shackles of superstition and appreciate the real world as reason and the scientific method reveal it to us. See you next year in Vegas!

Sprouting Seeds

It warms my heart to see young people embrace reason and critical thinking and declare themselves atheists. I have always valued learning and it is wonderful to see young people independently reach the same conclusion I have. It makes me wish I was able to do so earlier in my life. Alas, I’m from a different generation than those in college and high school today. Some things are easier for them and some things are harder, I’m sure. I will always be an avid supporter of college campus groups like the local Atheist Longhorns. Watching these sprouting seeds gives me so much hope for the future.

It’s doubly wonderful to hear from an outspoken young atheist who is a freshman in high school. Lucia Guatney recently finished her freshman year in high school and she has written a nice article on what it’s like to be an atheist high schooler, about her conversation with Richard Dawkins, and about how exciting that was for her. She even has her own blog. Wow. Go Lucia!

It was triply wonderful for me to notice that Lucia is going to the same high school that I did. It made me think about how the school has changed and how I’ve changed along the way. I think it was there that some seeds of atheism were planted in me. My best friend was an atheist, but I didn’t form an opinion on religion until much later. Perhaps I was fortunate to not be too immersed in religion in my youth.

I remember three high school teachers who helped to plant some seeds. One had us read about the Holocaust and think critically about convention and authority. Another helped me appreciate the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the fraud behind Guadalupe. A third (math) teacher pointed out that according to the Bible, pi is 3. Hats off to these fabulous teachers, wherever they may be.

I have to give a nod to the Secular Students of Rice University, my alma mater. While college freethought groups are now common, they were rare when I was in college and Rice didn’t have one. I’d like to think that I helped to pave the way for them in some small way. When I was in college, I did some sparring with the Campus Crusade for Christ and Maranatha student groups. An acquaintance of mine from college looked me up on Facebook recently and gave me an unsolicited compliment about how brave I was to sand up to their viewpoints those many years ago. I don’t think of myself as particularly brave.

It’s nice to look back on some of those early experiences and feel a connection to the next generation of young people who are poised to make their impact on the world. I have high hopes for them.

Headscratcher of the Day

Since he couldn’t reach us by email (that would be tv [at] atheist-community [dot] org), an Australian blogger named Skelliot left a message in comments informing us that his university blocks the AE blog, as well as some other atheistical and scientifical sites, by categorizing us as “Occult.” Yes, I’ll be baffled by that one for a long time. Meanwhile, Christian drivel is given a pass, of course. Irony much? Anyway, it’s not a policy that speaks well for his college (whatever it is) presuming to be an institution of higher learning. I’d suggest a transfer.

Chuck Colson’s insecure little God

If you haven’t clicked over to the Zondervan blog to read Chuck Colson’s extended reply to Kazim, by all means do so. It’s really quite something, a rhetorical mishmash chock full of logical fallacies, false premises, and poor argument structure. One of Christianity’s bestselling apologists mounts some of the most amateurish defenses of the faith I’ve ever seen. Quite often — no doubt used to writing almost exclusively for a Christian readership who unquestioningly accepts all he says — he just asserts things without backing them up, or, if he does, with feeble sound bites that may seem like obvious conclusions to him, but won’t to anyone who thinks about them for longer than a picosecond.

I’ve been replying to a lot of points in the comments over there, but for this one specific passage, I’m posting my reply here, with only slight copy editing so it reads like a blog post and not a comment. I hope Zondervan has the integrity to leave my comments and those of other atheists up, and doesn’t do the Uncommon Descent insta-delete thing. Whatever they choose, I’m posting this one bit here, as I think it’s an important one. Because in this passage, Colson makes an embarrassing mistake in arguing for his God that, unfortunately, doesn’t paint God in a very flattering light. Indeed, he unwittingly makes his God into a rather pathetic and weak figure.

Colson starts:

You’re making the assumption that for God to be God, or for you to believe in Him, He must reveal Himself by giving us evidence which by reason would establish His existence. But why should the God who created everything that is explain Himself? What would compel such a God to do that?

Gosh, what about that crazy little thing called love? Over and over Christians try to tell us that God is love, that he loves us and wants a personal relationship with us, etc. etc. And yet when God is asked, entirely reasonably, to reveal his existence to us unambiguously, suddenly we’re the jerks! This is kind of hard to swallow in light of the fact this God purportedly sentences anyone who doesn’t believe in or worship him to his satisfaction to eternal torture in Hell!

Ironically, just a few paragraphs earlier, Mr. Colson asks rhetorically…

Is not the capacity for love, though you cannot see it, something which can be objectively (though not scientifically) measured?

Yes, it is (though Colson’s confused on his terms — the ways in which the emotions of love manifest in observable behavior are something science can study). And I would suggest that one measure of the capacity for love is that one does not deceive the object of one’s love, that one does not hide that which should not and does not need to be hidden, that one treats the object of one’s love with generosity, kindness and above all, respect.

It is not an act of respect — let alone love — to condemn someone to a horrible punishment simply for doubting your existence when you have categorically refused to reveal your existence. That you are a universe-creating deity is irrelevant to the issue. If your argument is that God, being God, doesn’t owe anybody anything, because HE’S GOD, SO SHUT UP, then why should human beings with reasoning capacity respond to that kind of arrogant disrespect with love and respect ourselves? To do so would only be a dishonest love borne out of fear. Mr. Colson is arguing for God as nothing more than a tyrant, an authoritarian thug and despot. Is this really the message he hopes will persuade atheists?

So in reply to Mr. Colson’s question, “But why should the God who created everything that is explain Himself?” my response is simple: If God really loved us, he would.

Yet Mr. Colson goes on with more arguments in favor of God’s authoritarianism and privilege, as if these were praiseworthy qualities.

A God great enough to create the heavens and earth, and all of life in it, is a God who has no obligation to explain why He created us. In fact, He has a good reason not to. I believe it was Aquinas who argued that if God could be known to us by reason, we would take Him for granted; He would be no different than the tree that one could see from one’s office.

Well, I would argue that God does have such an obligation, especially if the penalty for not being a member of his fan club is eternity in the lake of fire. If God did not want to have any obligations to us, then he should have left us as mindless as amoebas, and not given us the capacity to think and reason, which naturally tends to instill in us feelings of self-worth.

But I cannot imagine who would consider this silly point of Aquinas’s to be a “good reason” for God’s not revealing himself. It is hardly the case that any person alive holds all of the things they know to exist on some sort of even plateau of worth. Any parent knows that their own children exist; unless they are really horrible parents, that fact certainly does not mean they are as indifferent to their children as they are to a tree.

And doesn’t it seem curiously insecure of God to worry about being “taken for granted,” when, just a moment ago, Colson was arguing for God’s being so magnificent and so glorious and so divinely important and powerful and magisterial in his universe-creating awesomeness that the very idea of revealing himself to us puny humans was simply too far beneath his notice to be anything but absurd? Haven’t I seen this before? Oz the Great and Terrible, was it? Bluster, bluster, bluster…but pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

I’d suggest in future, Colson should consider amending his apologetics so that he doesn’t make the rather devastating mistake of following up a bout of “God’s too big and awesome and important to reveal himself to mere mortals,” with, “But really…he’s scared you’ll ignore him!”

PS: If you’re inclined to leave comments of your own at the Zondervan blog, do remember these basics, please, about which I shouldn’t have to ask. Be civil and polite. Keep your language clean. And restrict yourself simply to refuting the points you think need refuting, in detail, without telling Colson you think he must be “some kind of fucking idiot for believing all that crap!” (Civility! From me! Russell must be beaming with pride!)

Ray Comfort on WDAY AM 970

I’m listening to Ray Comfort spew nonsense on WDAY this morning and losing an IQ point a minute. You may recall that he was supposed to debate PZ Myers on today’s show, but there was a change of format. PZ will be on tomorrow at 10:00am, so I can regain my lost IQ points.

Some gems from the show include Ray’s agreement that the Catholic Church tortured people during the Inquisition, but “don’t blame that on Christians.” This was after a caller pointed out that the church imprisoned Gallileo for suggesting that the earth revolves around the sun. Just a few minutes before that, Ray had commented that “In a hundred years time we will laugh at what science believes.” The man truly has no sense of irony.

He also thinks there’s “absolute, 100% proof” that intelligent design is true. Well, we already knew that Ray, but where’s the proof? He had the temerity to use the old “no building without a builder” canard and to further demonstrate his misunderstanding of evolution by asking the host, “Can you make me a cow from nothing?”

No Ray, but you’re doing a pretty good job of making an ass of yourself from nothing. Aside from your gross misunderstanding of evolution, you have a habit of pretending you can’t hear the callers who disagree with you. Of course, your hearing miraculously returns for the YECs recommending Answers in Genesis as a source of science information.

In short, nothing new here. Same old creationist nonsense, same old intellectual dishonesty.

Oh hell, another one

Is the Greene Litigiousness Virus making the rounds lately? Here’s another dimwit only too eager to don Patrick’s crazy hat and leap into the fray.

A Canton man is suing Zondervan Publishing and a Tennessee-based publisher, claiming their versions of the Bible that refer to homosexuality as a sin violate his constitutional rights and have caused him emotional pain and mental instability.

Well, I’ll certainly buy the mental instability bit, but I hardly think the courts are likely to agree that Zondervan’s Bibles have caused it. Bradley LaShawn Fowler has apparently failed to notice that every translation of the Bible in existence vilifies gays, even the many millions of editions not published by Zondervan. There are sound condemnations to be made of the Bible regarding the suffering its teachings have caused many groups of people down the centuries — gays, Jews, atheists, women. But frivolous litigation addresses these issues not at all, and only invites more derision. I suspect Mr. Fowler (who’s representing himself, which I’m sure will come as a knockout surprise) is destined to endure yet more “demoralization, chaos and bewilderment,” especially when he finds out just how quickly this one gets thrown out.

Please stop CCing us your Patrick emails

It’s not likely most of the people who are, a week after the fact, only just now seeing last week’s show involving Patrick Greene will read this first. But in any event, as we mentioned on the show today, emails from our viewers criticizing Patrick are still pouring in, and they’re still being sent to the AE TV show email address as well as to him. We’d just like to say, while we’re amazed at the overwhelming reaction, we’re pretty much past the whole Patrick debacle now. So if you still want to write him, fine. Just don’t copy it to us, okay? Matt and I are a little weary now, and probably the rest of the team are as well, to the point where if we see any email with “bumper sticker” or “lawsuit” in the subject line, we simply delete it. The message has been loud and clear, Patrick apparently has already decided all of you are fools and cowards anyway, so it’s time to move on.

This Sunday’s ACA lecture – Belief

The ACA hosts a monthly lecture series at the Austin History Center. I’ll be delivering the August lecture, this Sunday and I thought it might be worthwhile to post a brief synopsis.

It’s a topic that I’ve been fleshing-out for quite a while and despite the fact that we’re less than 48 hours from lecture time, it’s not completely finished (I’ve still got to finish some slides and run through it once more to make sure it’s complete and of the appropriate length). The major themes, though, are complete…and despite the fact that ‘epistemology’ might be a more accurate title, I’m sticking with ‘belief’.

Why? I once had someone write in to the TV show to try to convince me that it was pointless to discuss beliefs and that only knowledge mattered. I couldn’t disagree more. Belief is something that I think is much easier to come to terms with than the various (and potentially useless) definitions of ‘knowledge’. Belief is simply the acceptance of a proposition as true. Beliefs inform our actions – they matter. What we believe, and why, may be the single most important issues we face.

On a previous show, I pointed out that the old adage “knowledge is power” is actually wrong – in my opinion the real power is in understanding, not knowledge. I’m pretty sure that’s what the saying implies, but I’ve been continually striving to be more precise in language. We tend to communicate in shorthand, trusting that our meaning is understood, because shorthand is usually good enough. However, when it matters, our reliance on these linguistic shortcuts isn’t just a hindrance, it’s potentially crippling.

So, we’ll be starting with a few definitions; ‘belief’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘real’…and then moving on to some Venn diagrams demonstrating truth values vs. belief values, what it all means, which positions or ‘sets’ are actually useful and which don’t provide nearly the clarity that they imply in the vernacular.

And, unlike my last two lectures that sort of just faded out, this one may actually have a real ending – though I won’t promise that.

If you’re in the Austin area, you’re welcome to attend (see the ACA website for more information). The lecture may eventually be posted, in some format, on our lecture page.

The absurdity of G-d

This is just a quick something-to-think-about that began as a bit of a pet peeve.

If you’ve been interacting with religious folk on the interwebs, you’ve probably run across comments from Jews that include “G-d” in place of “God”. A bit of investigating will reveal that this is a way of showing respect and avoiding the ‘sin’ of erasing or defacing the name of God.

When I first heard of this, I largely disregarded it as one of the various pretentious activities of the religious. Eventually, I gave it a bit more thought and the absurdity really started to sink in. Consider the following…

The Jewish deity has a name and it’s a sin to erase or deface this name. There are a number of names for this god (YHVH, El Shaddai, Elohim), some of which are supposedly unutterable, others are reportedly unknown (what happens if you accidentally deface one of the unknown names?) – but all are sacred.

So, observant Jews avoid typing or writing “God”, for fear that it ‘might count’ as a name of their god. The generic “god” is a word in the English language, made up of characters that evolved from other languages. The symbols that make up this word (remember, it’s the written name, not the spoken name – that one must be cautious about), are unlikely to be the correct symbols for any of the names of their god, as these characters didn’t exist at the time.

If modern English characters could be constructed to actually be the written name of a god, it seems that those characters might just as likely be “banana”, “porn” or “ghoti” – yet observant Jews don’t worry about morphing these words to avoid incidental defacement of the name of their god.

But, if we assume, for a moment, that “God” is a valid written representation of the name of the Jewish god, isn’t “G-d” a defacement of that name? Granted, we’re in the realm of word-magic, so it doesn’t have to make sense, but it certainly seems ironic to me.

Further, we’re really just talking about characters here that are used as labels for a concept. The label “god” is a non-specific reference to a type of being, “God” tends to refer to a specific being.

The value of a label is in its ability to communicate information.

By modifying the “God” label to “G-d”, the Jews have added information. The “God” label could apply to a variety of specific deities qualifying for proper-noun-status. The “G-d” label, because of Jewish usage, now has the added information that renders it a label that specifically applies to the Jewish god.

It has, by their alteration, become a more specific label that is far more likely to qualify as the “name” of their god than the less specific versions that started this mess.

Ironic, huh?