Vic Stenger visited Austin at the end of October

Dr. Victor J. Stenger, author of the New York Times best seller, “God: The Failed Hypothesis” was in Austin at the end of October promoting his new book, “The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason“. He gave a lecture and did an interview with me. For various reasons, we have not publicized these until now.

Since the Atheist Experience is on break, it seems like a good time to unveil them.

“A Conversation with Vic Stenger”

Mp3 audio is available here.

“The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason”

Mp3 audio is available here.

Hooray, Mormons!

So, after all my jealous whining every time Kazim has a story to tell about religious types knocking at his door, yesterday evening I got a visit from a couple of Mormon missionaries. You know, the young guys riding around on bicycles in white shirts, black slacks and ties and calling themselves “Elder” although they’re all of 20 or 21, if that.

No, I didn’t bite their heads off and drink the blood from their spurting neck stumps. These were a couple of nice guys, and I thought, we’ll, here’s a chance to pin them down on their beliefs and see how they respond to a tough question now and again. I told them up front I was an atheist, affiliated with a local atheist organization, co-host of a TV show and moderator of a blog, both on atheism. They were like, Oh, okay, and asked me a couple of questions about the difference between agnosticism and atheism.

So, to the highlights. I kept the tone entirely pleasant all the way, just in case they were worried. I suspect that these guys put up with a lot of “No thanks” and slammed doors, but generally aren’t accustomed to dealing with someone who both openly identifies as atheist and then eagerly proceeds to engage them. (And one of the guys later on said as much.) My main question was one right from the AETV playbook: Exactly what do you guys believe and why do you believe it?

It is always interesting to question believers like that, because right there, in that most basic of all approaches to religious discussion, you will see just how differently theists and atheists approach thinking about religion and its claims. They essentially told me about their belief in God as a loving father figure, etc., and instead of giving me a solid “why” for what they believed, they merely asserted the strength of their belief as some kind of validation for it. The thing is, I don’t think they were playing dodgeball. Cognitively, this is just how a lot of theists are. Passion equals proof, more or less. I think they thought they were giving me a very solid why, without understanding why “I know it in my heart” or whatever descriptive phrase they call into play does not, in fact, answer, why. I could have hammered the point home, demanding to know why they knew it in their hearts so strongly, but I know that for an answer I’d have ended up on a rhetorical merry-go-round.

Where the conversation got interesting — to keep this post short — was when I asked them why they believed Christ’s sacrifice was necessary. It all went back to original sin, as in mainstream Christianity, though where Mormons split from mainstream Christians is in rejecting the Trinity (at least, that’s what they told me). Jesus, in their belief system, is the Son of God, but was not God in the flesh. Anyway, this led to my asking about sin, and why God would allow such a drastic flaw in his creation in the first place, thus necessitating Christ’s sacrifice years later. Their answer was interesting. Apparently, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were perfectly innocent, like “three year olds.” They didn’t reproduce because, in their innocence, they didn’t know how, poor things. But here’s the strange part. God apparently realized that this childlike, innocent bliss was stifling, stultifying. He introduced sin, they told me, so mankind could be happy. Certainly, introducing evil into the world brought with it much strife, but it also brought humanity the ability to exercise their free will to choose happiness over evil.

I had to admit this was a new take on the theology to me, but it still didn’t really pass the smell test. For one thing, I told them I couldn’t figure out why a perfect being like God, what with being omniscient and all, couldn’t have come up with a better and more consistent business plan. Wouldn’t God have know how to get it right from the start, without wasting so much time by first creating a world of innocent, developmentally arrested and hopelessly boring children romping around a meadow doing nothing in particular, only to think to himself “Nah, this ain’t working” and change the rules? God here resembles those artists who are said to be such great masters at their craft that they introduce deliberate flaws into their work simply so they themselves don’t get bored with it. But even those artists aren’t all-powerful and all-knowing, so why wouldn’t a perfect being have simply done the job to his satisfaction the first time?

The discussion went back to the whole free will thing, which led me to ask if there was free will in Heaven. After all, Heaven is supposed to be a place of eternal bliss. Why, if the Earth was such a drag in that condition, should Heaven then be a place we aspire to? Do people in Heaven have free will? Yes, they told me. So, if that’s true, then is it possible for people to do evil in Heaven? Yes, they said, only in Heaven, well, it’s such a great place that up there, you just wouldn’t want to.

Okay, hang on, I said (thoroughly enjoying myself by now). Why can’t Earth simply be that kind of place, one where you can choose to be evil, but are so content with your life that you don’t? Because, if that’s the definition of Heaven, I’d have to say I’m already there. I choose not to do evil, because I see too many reasons not to, and even more reasons to be good, plus, I simply have no impetus towards evil acts. It seemed that the more these guys described Heaven to me, the less it seemed like there was any notable difference between it and Earth. (And besides, I had to point out that Lucifer chose evil while in Heaven and rebelled against God, which kind of threw cold water on their assumption that no one would want to.)

Well, you might be able to see where this is leading: they finally admitted (I’m big on body language, so I couldn’t help noticing one of the guys take a big step back as he gave me this answer) that in the end, it boils down to faith. Well, of course it does, and if I’d bet myself a ten-spot we’d eventually end up at this point, then…well, I’d have a ten-spot. I was encouraged to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon and study it, but — and here’s the kicker — check those hard questions and skeptical thoughts of mine at the door, and just allow the message to wash over me. Now, without shifting from my Mr. Nice Atheist persona, I couldn’t let them off the hook with this one. I told them I simply couldn’t do that. Whatever I read, I think about it, and if there are hard questions to ask, then goshdarnit, I ask them. You have to. Indeed, the more important the issue at hand, the more there is at stake (and if the claims of Christianity are true, then there is quite a lot at stake), the harder your questions have to be. What they didn’t realize was that by insisting I had to treat their holy book different from anything else I might read — simply choosing to exercise little to no critical thinking in the reading of it — they were all but admitting that their holy book could not stand up to such intellectual scrutiny. And that’s hardly the way an all-powerful, all-knowing being would go about his business in spreading his Word, wouldn’t you say?

Anyway, there are more details about the conversation I could go into, but those were the highlights. We parted cordially, I told them it was nice to meet them and good luck in their efforts, and I hope I left them with some food for thought. If nothing else, I suspect that they’ll be telling their fellow missionaries at the church on Sunday about the atheist guy they talked to. I hope they come back.

Allah Flummoxed by Swine Flu

I wanted to share with you the very first news item I saw on television this morning. It was a story about swine flu concerns surrounding hajj. Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of all Muslims who are able to make the trek. Google “hajj+’swine flu'” to find related articles.

Apparently, if adherents are required to destroy skyscrapers and execute unbelievers for jihad, the god will ensure their success. But protecting adherents from a flu bug, while they make the required hajj, is a bit too much to ask from the all-powerful creator of everything.

Happy 150th, Origin!

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, and, reports have it, the mainstream media has decided, in its infinitely misguided goal to be “fair and balanced” about things, to give publicity to ignoramuses. So, I’m told, Stephen Meyer spouts his usual string of canards on CNN, and Time has apparently weighed in by interviewing some dimwit named Dennis Sewell on Darwin’s “Dark Legacy” (ooooooo!). You know, the usual Godwinning, “evilushun is to blame for school shootings oh noes!!!” feces. Well, I choose to ignore ignorance. And I’m not linking to it, because blithering anti-science idiocy does not deserve to be rewarded with links. Instead, I’ll simply raise a toast to one of the greatest and most important works of science of all time. Long after Christianity — and indeed, the human race — has settled into dust, whatever living things remain on this earth will continue to evolve, and the panoply of life will continue. Which is the reason Roger Ebert has described evolution as the “most consoling of all the sciences.” Because it not only tells us that life will find a way, but it tells us how. All thanks to Chuck D. Well done, sir.

Thanks for not using “No True Scotsman”

I found this letter to the editor in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman interesting. It was in reference to a statement in an earlier article regarding the recent Fort Hood shootings:

Religious radical?
Re: Nov. 12 article “Suspect alarmed doctors.”

The story noted that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s doctors and colleagues “viewed him at times as belligerent, defensive and argumentative in his frequent discussions of his … faith.”

That pretty much describes every member of the religious right that I’ve ever encountered.

Rev. Bill Young

How often have I, and others, said that liberal Christians need to be more vocal in their condemnation of their more extreme brethren–instead of falling back on the “No True Scotsman” fallacy? In fact, it’s their silence and solidarity as much as their support of irrationality that lends credibility to the extremists in their ranks. So, this statement undermines at least one of the pillars supporting fundamentalism in Western Christendom. I hope other Christians will follow suit.

When I first read the content, I thought, “No Christian will hear anything an anti-religious person submits in this vein.” Then I saw the signature and was happy. It’s like reading about a lawsuit to bring down a religious statue on public property and finding the plaintiff is theist. It’s sort of a relief to know we aren’t going to be accused of bias and targeted for criticism or ugly insults—at least not this time. That’s not a bad feeling now and again.

Thanks Bill.

You blog readers are so very silly

After I wrote my last post about Nazis disapproving of Darwin, Ruud pointed out that another reader had converted the post into film format on YouTube.

No reading, no dramatic enactment, just the text of the post — written in an old timey, grainy black and white film format, with German music playing over it. Watch it here!

It is my hope that Prophiscient will also give this post the same treatment, because that would lead to a delightful kind of double-infinite-self-reference loop.

Another reason not to blame Darwin

Atheist Experience viewer Ruud from the Netherlands just drew my attention to another excellent reason why it’s is ridiculous to blame evolutionary theory for Nazism extermination. Checking out the Index to Creationist Claims, I see that it’s already on there, but since it was new to me I thought I’d share it.

The University of Arizona’s site hosts a list of books that were banned in Germany in the 1930’s. Among them is… take a wild guess…

Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism (Haeckel).

And just for good measure, there’s also this:

c) All writings that ridicule, belittle or besmirch the Christian religion and its institution, faith in God, or other things that are holy to the healthy sentiments of the Volk.

That ought to settle the issue. But of course, you know it won’t.

Don’t fear to let bad guys talk

There are many lines that you can expect to hear on just about every episode of The Atheist Experience. One is “Tell me what you believe and why you believe it.” Another is “Promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state.” However, I think one of the most important repeated lines is: “If you disagree with us, then we will try to get to your call more quickly.”

To me, that’s a vital component of intellectual honesty. Anyone can barricade themselves in a mental fortress of belief, deciding on what is true “in their hearts” early in life, and refusing to listen to any evidence to the contrary. However, if you want to have as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as possible, you simply have to step out of your fortress and really listen openly to what people are saying who don’t agree with you. There is no other way to expose the false beliefs you hold and the true beliefs that you lack.

That’s why I generally want to make it a point in life to read the Bible, listen to Christian radio, argue with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and take all the callers I can.

That’s also why I’m kind of disappointed, though not really surprised, by the apparent terror that, ah, certain people seem to have these days over putting 9/11 terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in a civilian court.

As I understand it, there are two major concerns at play here, both of them (not to put too fine a point on it) cretinous. One of them is that Mohammed will escape from jail and go on the most horrifying killing spree the world has ever known. The other is that if Mohammed is allowed to defend himself in court, then the dulcet tones of his voice spouting terrorist propaganda will surely incite more violence against the United States.

Ezra Klein masterfully dismantles both arguments in just a few short sentences. Regarding their escape:

These guys took down a plane with box cutters. They used crude weapons to attack a far more sophisticated and effective fighting force. The most fearsome of them was captured at home, in his pajamas. It’s not like we’re putting Magneto on trial and need to keep him away from metal filings.

And regarding letting him talk:

Trying these guys publicly, as well as holding them in normal prisons like common criminals, is good public relations. Being a terrorist is a more appealing prospect if the world’s sole superpower appears to cower before your might than it is if you end up trapped in the American legal system, forced to submit to endless cross-examination and consultation with attorneys and other bureaucratic humiliations. Lots of people want to be super villains. But who wants to be a henchman? Being held on a fortified military island and tortured by a country that can’t seem to get you to talk is a much more glorious finish than a long and dull trial that ends with you serving time in central New Jersey.

When you come right down to it, Mohammed is really just another extreme religious crackpot, and talking and listening to religious crackpots is what we on the Atheist Experience want to happen. We want it to happen because crackpottery thrives on remaining mysterious. If you can frame your crackpottery in a few pithy sentences appealing to some seemingly high minded ideals, then it sounds superficially convincing. But when you start probing their beliefs in depth, that’s when you get to have conversations like this

“Tommy Davis previously denied the Xenu story, asking CNN reporter John Roberts if it ‘sounded ridiculous’ and saying the story was ‘unrecognisable’ to him. The Xenu story has also been denied by actor Tom Cruise and other famous Scientologists.”

And this

“Wait. Mormons actually know this story and they still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet? …No, it’s a matter of logic! If you’re gonna say things that have been proven wrong, like that the first man and woman lived in Missouri, and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you’d better have something to back it up. All you’ve got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat, and then couldn’t do it again when the translations were hidden!”*

And this

“Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man… living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you! He loves you. He loves you and he needs money!”

That’s what we want to have happen with the beliefs of fuckwits like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We want an American lawyer to stand up in front of this guy on the witness stand, and let him spout off his beliefs. And then we want our lawyer to shake his head in disbelief, and say “Mr. Mohammed, are you freaking kidding me????

What we don’t want is for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to get away with no trial at all, or a tribunal under cover of darkness. We don’t want him to be executed without a chance to air out his horrific, vile sounding views. We don’t want to give people an excuse to make a martyr out of him without laying his idiocy bare for the entire world to see.

I’m sure some people will object that someone will hear his words and say “Hey, ya know? This jihad business sounds pretty reasonable to me.” And I’m sure that that’s true; I can imagine that there are probably a (very, very, very small) number of people who were not already looking to sign up for the terrorist lifestyle, but will be persuaded by Mohammed’s silver tongue to join the cause.

But you know what else? I’m willing to take that chance, because I’m seriously betting that the number of people who will be moved to sympathy for America and disgust for Mohammed and his ilk would tremendously dwarf the number of people who would fall for his recruitment speech.

I am firmly of the belief that you can’t prevent bad ideas from being heard, but you can shed light on them and make them look foolish. I think it’s the ideal of free speech that we should all strive for. If I didn’t think that, then I would have to conclude once and for all that our little public access show is a bust, simply on the grounds that we have allowed so many more bad ideas to get air time than would have gotten it otherwise.

Call me a naive idealist for having some faith in humanity that they can be dragged to a reasonable position. The ones to really watch out for are the small-minded, pathetic people polluting the airwaves, who are afraid to hear Khalid talk. Somehow they must feel that his beliefs are so reasonable and so seductive that millions of people will become America’s enemies just by listening to a defeated criminal speak on a docket. And frankly, I feel sorry for them, for the fear of the world around them that they must feel every day

* Note: It was pointed out in the comments that the quote about Mormonism from South Park, while funny, is not an accurate representation of the Mormon story.

A beautiful day, sans creationist fools

Okay, so I read on Pharyngula this morning that Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, rescheduled his giveaway of his bowdlerized Origin of Species on university campuses for today instead of tomorrow, evidently because he heard that people were preparing to counter it by printing up information from the NCSE’s enjoyable Don’t Diss Darwin site. So naturally, he had to do an end-run around that, since his pathetic, ignorant twaddle sinks like the Titanic when faced with the iceberg of scientific fact.

So I’m trying to make up my mind whether or not to go down to the UT-Austin campus and confront the dopes handing out books. But I’m not sure I really feel like it. For one reason, unless you’re a student, or you live down there or have business there, the campus isn’t very visitor-friendly. Traffic is a headache, and parking is a righteous pain in the ass at the best of times. And anyway, it would be amusing for a few minutes, I suppose, but then, like all dealings with creationist fools, it would simply get aggravating and tedious.

Finally, I step outside, and I see this.

And I think to myself, Wow, an absolutely perfect autumn day. Which is rare enough in Austin, I can tell you. Seriously, we’re talking deep blue, cloudless, endless skies, and the temperature like Goldilocks’ porridge. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.

And then I think, now who would I rather spend a gorgeous day like this with? A gaggle of hopeless anti-science morons, or someone with more charisma and intelligence than all of them put together? Say, this guy:

It was not a difficult decision. Grab the leash, dial up a little Miles Davis on the iPod, and it’s off to the park we go, big boy!

Really, some days are just too beautiful to ruin.

So, I have no idea yet how the UT giveaway went, and what fireworks may or may not have erupted. I’ve put an email in to some folks with Atheist Longhorns I know, so maybe they’ll have a report for me later.

Oh, the Irony

I had to chuckle when I read about the recent study that investigated the alleged link between homosexuality and pedophile priests, only to find no connection. The Catholic Church has been blaming gays, pop culture, and even the victims for their problems. Now, it seems they have one less group to blame. (Don’t hold your breath on them stepping up to the responsibility plate, though.)

What made this study even more delicious is that the Catholic Church funded it. It reminds me of the 2006 intercessory prayer study that the Templeton Foundation funded that showed that nothing fails like prayer. I’m willing to bet that in both cases, the funding agency thought for sure that their world view would be vindicated. Both groups each had millions of dollars riding on the bet.

Reality bites, sometimes.

I think these are both excellent uses of religious funds.