On “voting your atheism” and Ellen Johnson’s radicalism

Recently, American Atheists president Ellen Johnson caused a slight tremor on the blogosphere’s Richter scale when she opined in a video commentary that atheists should “stay home during the general election in November” because “we are ignored.” This raised the ire of at least a handful of folks, among them AC Chase, who called for Johnson’s immediate resignation as AA prexy, and VJack over at Atheist Revolution.

I agree with those who have condemned Johnson, though whether or not she resigns from AA (and she won’t) is a matter of complete indifference to me. I’ve never been a member of American Atheists and have no particular interest in joining, though I know a lot of folks who are members and support their freedom to be involved in atheist activism in whatever avenue they feel is best. Johnson doesn’t represent me and never will. However, if there is a perception out there that Johnson, and by turns AA, does represent the views of all American atheists — and it seems to be a perception AA encourages — then certainly some correctives are in order.

I admire AA on the one hand for being an organization that gets things done. The Godless Americans March on Washington held back in 2002, which drew about 2,500 atheists from around the country to a rally that raised public awareness of atheists as involved voters, would have been unheard of only a handful of years before, given the nature of atheists as rugged, stubborn individualists who frantically wish to avoid even the appearance of groupthink. On the other hand — and I am not alone in this criticism — the organization’s presumptuousness in positioning itself as the public voice for atheists nationwide can be irritating at times. The last thing we need is some godless equivalent of the SBC.

What is amazing to me about Johnson’s recent statement is that it seems to be a complete repudiation — indeed, outright betrayal — of everything that GAMOW was meant to establish. Perhaps this is because Johnson took GAMOW’s message — that of encouraging atheists to be active participants in American politics — too much to heart. She seems to have become radicalized. If no candidate is reaching out to the secular community specifically, then Johnson’s solution is for the godless to sit the whole thing out in November. Whereas in 2002 she was whipping us all up to get involved, six years later, she’s given up.

I hate to be Captain Obvious here, but how does demanding that candidates pander to atheists’ wants make atheists any different or better than the fundamentalist Christian “values voters” who gather at such appalling events as Justice Sunday demanding candidates whose platforms prioritize pandering to strictly conservative Christian interests? You know, the kinds of people who don’t give a shit about geopolitics or the war or the economy or the environment, but who will rush to the polls if they hear their pastor tell them So-and-So promises to outlaw gay marriages. If your atheism (or your theism, or your veganism, or your whateverism) is the only thing that matters to you when you go to the polls, then I’m afraid your views are pathetically narrow and selfish. There’s a hell of a lot more to me, if not to Ellen Johnson, than the fact that I’m an atheist. And I fail to see how my preferred candidate’s views on, say, troop withdrawal or lowering gas prices or the subprime lending crisis could possibly be rendered more or less valid if they somehow shoehorned their views on atheism into them. Those are unique issues in their own right, that affect every American, regardless of creed.

Back in 2000, when Nader split the Democratic vote and gave the presidency to Bush (settle down, flamers, it’s what happened), I remember the indignation from Nader voters, who repeatedly insisted that it was incredibly arrogant to assume they would have voted for Gore otherwise, and that by voting for Nader they were “voting their consciences.” I’m afraid that in this instance, they were confusing their “consciences” with their egos.

Similarly, this is what Johnson is doing. She’s confusing her principles with her ego, mistaking self-importance for integrity.

While we are all individuals with freedom of conscience, at the same time, we have to face the fact that life is sometimes all about playing the game. It’s unfortunate that we live under a two-party system of government that often comes down to voting the lesser of two evils, an act more about voting against the guy we hate the most as opposed to voting for someone we can actually stand.

Yeah, it sucks. Welcome to reality, which sucks quite often. Frankly, when faced with the choice of voting between “The Asshole,” “The Guy Who’s Less an Asshole But Has a Snowball’s Chance in Hell of Winning,” “The Guy Who’s Less an Asshole But Has a Good Chance of Upsetting the Asshole,” or “Fuck It, I’m Staying Home and Playing Mass Effect,” I just can’t bring myself to choose the latter. And even if my heart is telling me to vote for Mr. No-Chance-of-Winning Third-Party Spoiler, my rational mind, which has rarely led me astray, I’m pleased to say, will probably be telling me to go for the opponent with a reasonable chance. Because in the end, my vote isn’t about me at all, it’s about what will become of my country in the next 4-8 years. It’s hard, I suppose, for some to see the big picture that lies outside their narrow ideals. But there are times in life when reason must dictate that the big picture is bigger, and matters more, than those ideals. If you’re a person lucky enough to have “big picture” and “ideals” dovetailing all the time, great. But I don’t think many of us are that lucky. And it’s just irrational and unrealistic to think we can be.

This isn’t compromising your integrity, and it isn’t selling out your principles. It’s understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around you. And that if you want to live in reality as an active participant rather than moving out to the woods and being a hermit all your life, then you’ll often be faced with less-than-ideal choices. I believe the word for it is politics. Change always comes in increments, hardly ever with the instant gratification most Americans have gotten used to. And if you want to have any say in that change, given the fact that 100 million people who aren’t exactly like you are taking part in the process as well, then you have to participate.

Damn right I’m voting, Ellen. Follow your advice and stay home, and we all get to watch the fundies continue to run roughshod over the country. Nope, that’s not a choice my principles can countenance.

Rant over, now this: mindful of the fact that this blog is independent of the non-profit organization Atheist Community of Austin and is not bound by the laws pertaining to said organizations, then with the primaries coming up tomorrow in Texas and Ohio, I endorse Barack Obama. He’s actually a candidate I do like, and, faced with a voting year in which I have a good guy to vote for and not the usual “least an asshole” conundrum, I offer my endorsement gladly. (And if you live in Fort Worth or its environs, then for fuck’s sake vote for Pat Hardy for the SBOE!)

Meanwhile, back in reality…

While the Creationist Noise Machine continues annoying the public with its endless mantra of “there’s no evidence for evolution!” and “teach the controversy (that we’ve made up)!”, over in the real world, scientists continue to ignore such nonsense and concentrate on the actual research those people don’t do.

There’s an interesting report today about new discoveries in convergent evolution, where it’s been found that similar mutations in species of Asian monkeys and South American monkeys have led to genes that appear to confer resistance to HIV. The implication is that HIV possibly isn’t a new outbreak, and that similar diseases have afflicted primates in the past. Neat. The article doesn’t say if this research can lead to new, genetic treaments for HIV in humans, but it quite possibly could. You’d have to ask Abbie Smith about that — that’s her line.

Observe. This is exactly the kind of beneficial research that no creo has ever done. The kind of research that would be kicked in the balls if they got their wish of confusing students’ educations by introducing non-scientific ideas like ID into classrooms, shoring it all up with bold proclamations of conspiracy theories declaring scientists are evil thought police trying to control outside-the-box thinkers. Has the Discovery Institute produced any research that points to findings like the ones above, and do they have a way to explain these developments using ID? (And don’t tell me, “No, because teh eebul Darwinistas at the universities won’t let them!” because we all know how independently well funded the IDiots are.)

Of course not, all the ID crowd ever does is glom onto the latest research real scientists have done, then bitch about how it’s all wrong and shows biases against the supernatural and whatnot. As always, the IDiots have nothing to bring to the table, except their Dunning-Kruger-enhanced egos and pitiful need for attention. When it comes to advancing knowledge, they’re left sitting on the sidelines like the sad ugly kid at the school dance.

The Expelled farce gets even funnier

Check the latest post by PZ, concerning a desperate press release by the Expelled team, who are huffing and puffing and doing their best “well I never!” posturing over Robert Moore’s blistering review of the movie in the Orlando Sentinel. They claim — you’ll love this — that Moore created a “security breech [sic]” (at a press conference?) by sneaking in (to a screening for which his paper was sent an invitation?) disguised as a minister (huh?), and that he refused to sign the nondisclosure agreement (and what kind of “press conference” requires its attendees to sign an NDA?).

The usual “waah waah, the evil atheist conspiracy meanies are picking on us” self-pity you get from these losers, in other words. And they say “Big Science,” Ben’s imaginary villain, are the ones who want to “control the message”? Project much? Of course they do: they’re IDiots, which means they’re pathological liars and meretricious scumbags.

Note that on the Expelled blog, the whiny tard patrol respond by deriding PZ as an “atheist blogger and fabulist,” while somehow forgetting to note that he’s the same “fabulist” from whom they requested and got an interview for their movie under false pretenses.

How tragic it must be to be the sort of people who flail through life, literally psychologically incapable of being truthful, ever.

Because it’s not like there’s going to be a DVD boxed set

Our pal Joe Zamecki has posted the very first episode of The Atheist Experience to YouTube, from almost eleven years ago. I’ve never seen it till now. Hosting the program, which was not shot live in studio but taped at the cafeteria where the ACA used to have its Sunday brunches, are (from left) Joe, Mary Sue Osborne, and Don Rhoades, one of ACA’s true gentlemen.

A little while before my time, ’97. Yes, the technical quality is — ahem — crude. But it was a first effort from a fledgling atheist group trying something new and challenging. And the show it launched, that still runs to this day, has been an influence upon the media efforts of dozens of other little local godless organizations around the country. So here are its most humble origins, the first of several parts (the rest of which you can watch at YouTube itself). Thanks for unearthing and posting this, Joe!

England swinging towards reason

Their money is worth far more than ours, and now it seems their intellects are as well. Well, that last bit isn’t fair at all, of course. Great Britain has always had one of the richest intellectual and cultural legacies on earth. But to read that fully two-thirds of the population of the UK claim no religious affiliation is jaw-droppingly joyous to behold. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all embracing Dawkinsian atheism en masse. But it does mean that a greater percentage of them are thinking freely about these matters and refusing to commit to received belief systems and religions simply as an act of following the herd. It’s such a contrast to the headlong rush into the morass of anti-intellectual, anti-science religious irrationalism that the poor old US of A is suffering, that all one can do is wonder at how two free Western societies could take such disparate paths.

I think, in my layman’s way, that part of the cause of religion’s demise over there can be placed on their having a state-sponsored church. Nothing can turn a modern enlightened population off to the intellectual and moral dead end of religious belief than living in a country that still has blasphemy laws and is only just now considering repealing them, several centuries too late. And the way in which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams enjoys shooting off his mouth without first loading his brain on such subjects as Muslim sharia law can only serve to make the clergy and the beliefs they represent look not only unappealing but wholly reprehensible.

All I can say is I’m proud and envious of the British public as they continue to disprove the canard that we’ll never really be rid of religion, because people are weak sheep who need its comforting lies. Pro-religion views can only support themselves by selling humanity short. Secularism celebrates humanity and freedom to the greatest possible heights. I often dream I’ll live to see the day that America joins Britain and much of Europe in leeching the vile poison of religion from its system at last. What a day it will be when we can look back on the era in which megachurches brought in tens of thousands of sincere but unhappy people to separate them from their money, and politicians were judged worthy of office mainly to the degree they pandered to the most preposterous delusions, and shake our heads and laugh at our collective childishness. Alas, in too many people here, the disease really has rotted too deeply to be cut out. Will America advance, or remain mired in its superstitious rut while the rest of the West passes us by and leaves us nothing more than an intellectual backwater, to be pitied and ridiculed in equal measure? Hope springs eternal, but I remain cynical.

One Nation Under God

“It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase ‘under God.’ I didn’t.”

–Barak Obama, “Call to Renewal” Keynote Address, June 28, 2006.

This quote was featured this morning on another atheist blog I frequent, Austin Cline’s atheism.about.com section.

Austin makes some good points, and points most of the people who visit this blog spot would probably think of themselves. That the phrase is openly discriminatory toward atheists, and that it furthers the disenfranchisement of atheists in our culture.

I certainly don’t disagree. Although, if I’m going to be honest, I personally also never felt that the Pledge thrust religion or monotheism upon me as a youngster. I honestly don’t believe that any child will become monotheistic by being compelled to say the Pledge every morning and recite the phrase “One Nation Under God.”

Let me be clear, however, that I acknowledge that the insertion of the phrase is completely in violation of the Establishment of Religion clause, and should be removed, if on no other grounds than that.

Also, just because the phrase never offended me, personally, I certainly don’t take issue with anyone else feeling uncomfortable with it. How it makes a person feel is just that–how it makes them feel. It’s not wrong to have feelings or to acknowledge them. And just because I don’t share a person’s feelings, doesn’t invalidate their feelings, or my lack of them.

So, it is a phrase that at the very least violates our Constitution and, therefore, our law, and also that may offend some citizens who like to think that they are just as patriotic as any theist, or that they don’t want their children compelled to say this any more than a Christian would want their child compelled to say “One Nation Without a God.”. And these are real problems.

In my humble view, however, as someone who has dialogued with quite a lot of theists, neither of these things comes close to what I consider to be the real harm caused by the insertion of this phrase into our Pledge of Allegiance. What disturbs me beyond these two very real concerns? The fact that there is a group of very vocal, very politically active theists, specifically Christians, who would insert this phrase and similar phrases all over our government and our government-sponsored public institutions in order to promote the view that we are, on some level, a theocracy.

The last time I was on AE, Matt Dillahunty pointed out that if a person says “This is a Christian nation,” and they mean by that that our citizens, by and large, are Christians, they are correct. If they mean by that that the vast majority of early Americans and founders of the United States were Christians or monotheists along Christian lines, they are correct. If, however, they mean by that that our laws are based upon the Bible, and that Biblical authority or Christian authority supersedes Constitutional authority, they couldn’t be more wrong, (and, I would add, perhaps dangerous).

I know that by posting this, I’m preaching to the choir. And I have no intention of launching into arguments that already plaster the Internet regarding why I disagree with the theocratic stance. I’m only writing to address that, to me, it is unwise to ignore a growing group who vocally express a wish to enforce their religion upon the rest of our society. And it is unwise to believe that simply because I’m not feeling particularly offended by something, it’s not potentially threatening or harmful. Did anyone see the early push that Huckabee got in the primaries? Anyone who thinks there isn’t a growing movement for theocracy in the Christian community isn’t paying attention. And anyone who isn’t concerned by that isn’t thinking it through to the end. Even Christians should fear that concept, because, historically speaking, believers haven’t been particularly kind even to other believers when they aren’t in complete doctrinal agreement.

I’m not going to slam Obama as a uniquely insensitive or unaware, here. I’m sure Obama isn’t the only person–or politician–to share this sentiment. I actually have heard many atheists say the same thing: “It doesn’t bother me, why get all worked up over it? It’s harmless recitation.” But to that, I have to respond that there is a larger world out there, beyond me and how I feel. And it would be wise of us all to take notice of how others around us “feel,” because we might find they feel that our government should require us to adopt, if not their beliefs, at least their behaviors with regard to their religious perspectives. And they use these seemingly innocuous items to promote that agenda. Since it shouldn’t be there in the first place, by law, is it wise to endorse it, retain it, or defend it as “inoffensive,” while supporters of a U.S. theocracy begin to rally and test their power?

I’m thinking, “not.”

Punishing the Victim

This is a sick, twisted world that clearly needs to change:

The 19-year-old victim was sentenced last year to 90 lashes for meeting with an unrelated male, a former friend from whom she was retrieving photographs. The seven rapists, who abducted the pair and raped both, received sentences ranging from 10 months to five years in prison.

The victim’s attorney, Abdulrahman al-Lahim, contested the rapists’ sentence, contending there is a fatwa, or edict under Islamic law, that considers such crimes Hiraba (sinful violent crime) and the punishment should be death.

“After a year, the preliminary court changed the punishment and made it two to nine years for the defendants,” al-Lahim said of the new decision handed down Wednesday. “However, we were shocked that they also changed the victim’s sentence to be six months in prison and 200 lashes.”

The judges more than doubled the punishment for the victim because of “her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media,” according to a source quoted by Arab News, an English-language Middle Eastern daily newspaper.

Judge Saad al-Muhanna from the Qatif General Court also barred al-Lahim from defending his client and revoked his law license, al-Lahim said. The attorney has been ordered to attend a disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Justice next month.

So many things are wrong with this situation that one doesn’t know where to begin fuming, or whether to end.

On the other hand, consider the implications of punishing victims with infinite torture in Hell. Think about it: the basic tenets of Christianity are infinitely worse than the barbaric actions described in the article.

This also needs to change.

The Impact of Explanatory Function on Existence: Show #520

For some time I’ve been considering the idea that Christian apologists argue both sides of any issue and call it proof of god or of their doctrine’s validity. Examples would be “faith” versus “reason,” or “god answers prayers” versus “sometimes god answers prayers ‘no,’” or “the world is perfectly suited to human life” versus “the world is an awful place to live because of the horrors we face due to the infiltration of sin via Adam’s disobedience,” and so on.

These no-lose situations reminded me of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that I have come to refer to as “Brian’s Dilemma.” Here is how it works: Brian is trying to convince the masses he’s not the messiah. He says something like, “I’m not the messiah.” And someone in the crowd replies that, “Only the true messiah would deny his own divinity.” Then Brian says, “OK–I am the messiah.” And someone else in the crowd shouts, “Behold! The messiah!”

If everything is proof of X–no matter what the situation or outcome–then nothing can compromise my belief in X. There is no argument or evidence that can penetrate that. But I have to accept the absurdity of my stance that Y=X and –Y=X.

Brian understood that, logically, if only the true messiah would deny his own divinity, then the crowd must reject him as the messiah if he made then made the claim that he was, in fact, the messiah. But Brian overestimated the logical capacity of the masses. He was in a surreal, absurd no-lose (or, in his case no-win) situation–exactly the same situation apologists set up to prove the existence of their god and the validity of their doctrines.

But beyond this absurd apologetic setup is an interesting segue into explanatory power and what X “accounting for” something actually means to the existence of X.

Around this time, I came across two items that also noted the significance of this idea:

http://atheism.about.com/b/a/194807.htm

Austin Cline wrote (regarding parapsychology–not religion): “Hyman’s Categorical Imperative states: Do not try to explain something until you are sure that there is something to be explained. (Quoted from Ray Hyman) Unfortunately, parapsychology appears to be one massive violation of what Hyman advises. There is no particularly good reason to think that there is anything “paranormal” to explain in the first place, much less that parapsychology has anything substantive to offer in terms of explaining human experiences or the universe.”

George Smith, in his book “Why Atheism?” wrote (quoting Thomas Aquinas): “What can be accomplished by a few principles is not effected by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle, which is nature, and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle, which is human reason or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.” (From Summa Theologica).

Just to clarify, Aquinas is simply restating a counterapologetic in this passage and not putting forward this argument himself–as he was an apologist.

Smith considers this as a rephrasing of Occam’s Razor. However, he finds it an odd thing, to imply “that Occam’s Razor, when used to argue that ‘there is no need to suppose God’s existence,’ is relevant to the claim that ‘God does not exist.’ In other words, if there is no cognitive reason to posit the existence of God, if what needs to be explained can be explained by more economical means, then we may conclude that God does not exist.”

Of course, Smith understands that “failure to justify the need for God as an explanatory principle cannot prove his nonexistence,” and “the real existence of a being…does not depend on whether our concept of that being is necessary for explanatory purposes.”

Smith describes belief in Santa. Santa’s main explanatory function is that he is the cause of the many presents under our Christmas trees on Christmas morning. And there is a huge conspiracy one has to overcome to overcome belief in Santa–not just mom and dad, but commercial outlets, media outlets, TV weather tracking (the sleigh’s flight), the postal service (not returning mail to the “North Pole”), and so on. Everyone at every level of our society seems to be a conspirator. And yet one glimpse of those presents in our parents’ closet from “Santa,” and no authoritative claims can hold us to that belief any longer. We don’t rationalize that Santa must simply be using our parents as a means to deliver the presents. (But we do tend to do that for god. And I’m not sure why.)

Smith addresses logical versus material “possibility”–mainly to explain that “logically possible” has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not a thing actually exists–which cannot be too strongly stressed. Both Santa and god are logically possible. But just as the packages sitting under the tree don’t need Santa in order to exist, neither has anyone shown that nature requires god as an explanation. In fact, “nature exists” provides just as much information as “god causes nature to exist,” since nobody has provided any specifics on what “god” is or how exactly it created the cosmos. The answer amounts to “it all got here by some sort of mysterious magic.”

What does it say about the existence of Santa or god if there is no perceptual difference whether either exists or not–if they serve no explanatory function? Once we know the presents will appear with or without Santa–what does that mean for us, intellectually? What would be our reasoning behind assuming X exists, if we perceive nothing of X?

I refer anyone to Carl Sagan’s “The Dragon in My Garage,” if you aren’t already familiar with it, as it beautifully illustrates this point:

http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/Dragon.htm

What Does it say about the existence of X if the world would operate in exactly the same way with or without X? What would be the reasoning behind a claim that X exists? Are we actually using god as an explanation for things that require no explanation? I reviewed the concept of “god answers prayers” that I found at this site, which breaks “how god answers prayer” into categories:

http://www.god-answers.org/Online_Tools/Sermons/PRAYER.htm

I addressed how these “answers” are identical to the results one would get without prayer. In the first category, “god answers prayer through his inspired word,” Christians would find comfort in reading their Bibles whether or not there was any divine intervention, because they believe in god and find comfort in that belief–whether it’s true or not. In the second category, “god answers prayer through natural law,” if natural law is an answer to prayers, it’s fairly obvious that a natural result would occur whether or not one prayed. In the third category, “god answers prayer though people and situations,” it’s very similar to the second; people help one another out all the time–whether or not prayers are incorporated. The fourth category was interesting, as it presumes both a dilemma and a solution, neither of which are not observable or verifiable: God answers prayers “in his own mind” by forgiving sins. Finally, in the event that the prayer is not answered, the Christian should presume god answered “no.” And the Christian is further advised in all prayer situations to “pray like everything depends on god and work like everything depends on you.”

But, if I work to achieve my goals as though I’m completely on my own–how does that differ fro
m how I’d work if I actually was completely on my own? Isn’t the underlying theme in both scenarios simply that “the harder I work to achieve my goals, the more likely I am to actually achieve them”? Does that require a supernatural explanation?

But even with all my hard work, in both scenarios, I still can fail. Remember: Sometimes god answers “no.” Sometimes I get what I want or need, and sometimes I don’t. Interestingly, this is exactly the case for those who do not pray. Why employ a divine explanation for an event that works the same way without divine intervention? Are we simply using god as an explanation for something that requires no explanation?

Creationism/ID also lacks explanatory function while additionally presenting Brian’s Dilemma; however, Brian’s Dilemma, in this case, isn’t even necessary–as Creationism presumes a dilemma that does not appear to even exist (much like the “forgiveness of sins” prayer scenario described earlier).

Creationism/ID posits that the universe, in all its precision, is proof of an intelligent/divine creator who built it for the sole purpose of creating a haven for perfect human existence. But if we point out what would count as flaws in that supposition–such as birth defects, plagues, or tsunamis, we’re told that flaws do indeed exist, because of sin. Ironically, the Creationist and the atheist agree the universe is not a utopia–that it is not perfectly suited to solely and completely benefit humans. Creationists, however, put forward that it was utopian at an earlier stage. Is it necessary to posit that the universe used to be utopian–but later fell into sin and fault–when we could, more easily, acknowledge that universe has probably never been ideally suited to sustain utopian human existence? Aren’t we, in the Creationist scenario, simply using god as an explanation for things that don’t require an explanation?

By making the first unfounded assertion, that the universe should be utopian, we then create the need for the additional explanation for why it’s not utopian. But why claim it was ever utopian in the first place?

If no god had a hand in the formation of this universe, it would make sense that some parts would suit some life–but other parts would not. It makes sense from a naturalistic perspective that when any sort of life arises in this huge, broiling, mostly inhospitable cosmos, that the environment would have to be at least somewhat hospitable–but necessarily utopian? I see no basis for that assertion. And, coincidentally, we all seem to agree that “suitable,” but not “utopian,” is exactly what we’re dealing with in observable reality. But, to support the explanatory need for god, Christians must assert it necessarily used to be utopian.

I also briefly addressed the ID claim of “specified complexity.” One site called it an “unambiguously objective standard” put forward by William Dembski:

http://www.origins.org/articles/indesignfaq.html

“Instead of looking for such vague properties as ‘purpose’ or ‘perfection’–which may be construed in a subjective sense–it looks for the presence of what it calls specified complexity, an unambiguously objective standard.”

I looked up “specified complexity” to see whether or not I agreed it was an “unambiguously objective standard”:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specified_complexity

“Dembski argues that it is impossible for specified complexity to exist in patterns displayed by configurations formed by unguided processes. Therefore, Dembski argues, the fact that specified complex patterns can be found in living things indicates some kind of guidance in their formation, which is indicative of intelligence.”

So, we first assume pattern X cannot naturally occur. We then find pattern X in nature. And rather than acknowledge that, “Well, I’ll be dogged–it does occur in nature,” we simply say that what we’re observing is not possible–even as it sits right before our eyes–and that it actually has to be the handiwork of a god–since our original assumption that this can’t occur in nature can’t possibly be incorrect.

Not only is that not objective, it’s poor, poor science. If a scientist hypothesizes X cannot do Y, then observes X doing Y, he must acknowledge his hypothesis is in error. For example, if I hypothesize that no animal can exist without a brain in nature, and I then discover jellyfish, is it more reasonable for me to assume that my original hypothesis was incorrect, or that jellyfish are unnatural divine manifestations?

Holding to what we believe in the face of independently verifiable, observable facts to the contrary is not an admirable character trait in anyone, but it is most especially egregious for someone commenting in the field of science.

All roads will necessarily lead to god when we start out with the presupposition that the proposition “there is no god” is an absolute impossibility. To such a Christian, there is simply no way the universe can exist without a god; and so, to this Christian, the universe requires a god–no matter what happens in the universe or in what state the universe exists. But even if the Christian could be presented with a universe scenario that would exclude the possibility of an existent god, it’s highly probable that this scenario would simply be set aside as a “mystery,” to be explained later, after we’re all dead—like so many other Christian “mysteries.”

When god becomes the default plug-in explanation for “whatever it is–however it is,” then god can no longer be differentiated from “whatever is.” And god is rendered, in such a case, as serving no explanatory purpose of any kind, exactly like Santa and Sagan’s Dragon, except that god has managed, somehow, to avoid their fate as recognized nonexistent items. Perhaps that’s a mystery that will be explained later, after we’re all dead?

Taoism

Show #516 on Sunday, September 2, was a response to two items of viewer mail that the TV list received. Jeremy wrote initially to say he is a “religious atheist,” which he described as adhering to a secularized Taoism (pronounced Daoism). Within one week’s time another piece of mail came through addressing the issue of “where do atheists get meaning” in life?

In addition to these two letters, we have received numerous contacts from people asking “Why do you only always focus on Christianity?” Although Matt has addressed this in the past, I felt that a show exploring secular Taoism might be relevant on multiple fronts, and so chose that as the topic for #516.

The form of Taoism that is most prevalent, and with which most of us are familiar, is attributed to Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu may or may not have ever actually lived. But the text he is said to have written goes back about 2,500 years. The name “Lao Tzu” actually means “Old Man,” and it is doubtful that anyone named Lao Tzu authored the major Taoist work, Tao te Ching.

The Tao te Ching is a small collection of poetic Chinese sayings meant to describe the Tao and its operation. The title means literally, “The Book (Ching) of the application of (te) The Way (Tao).” And Tao, literally, means “The Way.” If you read the book, you will not find any list of “dos” and “don’ts.” There are no laws to memorize, and no condemnation or threats. The passages all sound something like this (#43):

The softest thing in the universeOvercomes the hardest thing in the universe.That without substance can enter where there is no room.Hence I know the value of non-action.

“Tao” does not mean “The Way” in the sense that we think of it in Christian models. It isn’t a way to achieve salvation. In fact, Taoists don’t believe in salvation. They wouldn’t understand what they need to be saved from—because they don’t interpret life, death or the natural world to be particularly problematic or flawed. They consider it to be simply, “the way” it is. In fact, “the way” it is, is what “The Way” (Tao) normally seems to represent. A reed is flexible—that is “The Way” (or Tao) of the reed.

Because the verses are so amorphous and malleable, they are interpreted in a number of ways by different people. However, this is not considered a problem for the Taoist—who believes that following his own Tao will quite naturally differ greatly from someone else following hers. It does not represent a single path for all of mankind—but a way of looking at life that will help each individual find the path that is right for him or her. It isn’t a mode of enlightenment or special knowledge. It is an affirmation that if one is willing to examine his/her life and motives, he/she can come to an understanding of what direction is best for himself.

Taoism prefers accommodation, flexibility, and seemless integration. The example I used on the program was one of Green Architecture. To build my house on a landscape means to impose myself upon that landscape. A Taoist would do his/her best to utilize the landscape in the most efficient way to support the house, while at the same time taking the environment into consideration as he/she plans his/her house.

Taoism is not concerned with universal origins and makes no claims about how the cosmos were constructed or when they began. Taoism only notes that the cosmos exist and appear to operate under observable laws, which are best used to one’s advantage rather than resisted. A counterweight would be an excellent example. When one has to lift a heavy object, one must oppose the natural force of gravity; but by applying a counterweight, we can actually use gravity to work for us, rather than struggling against it. With a counterweight, gravity can “lift” a heavy object for us.

Duality is another factor in Taoism. We understand that concepts like good necessarily indicate “not good” (or “evil” if you prefer to call it that). But duality goes beyond opposites. In Taoism, it is not so much a statement of X and -X, as it is X and nonX. In other words, there is no “opposite” to Tracie. But there is much that is “not Tracie.” So, the universe is divided, in the Taoist view, by what is Tracie and what is “not Tracie.” Likewise, the universe divides, dualistically, in any number of similar ways with regard to any “thing” you care to define.

I wrapped the show describing some personal views about Taoism from professed Taoists. And I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to get as many personal views as possible, to get an idea of how flexible this philosophy actually is. One can only really speak generally of it, as even the Tao te Ching not only fails to—but outright refuses to—define what Taoism is. According to the book, it is “nameless”—personally discerned—and cannot be accurately defined or described. Some have made the leap to call it “god.” But there is no direct indication that Lao Tzu was describing anything other than natural forces and pragmatic observations.

For further reading, I would actually recommend obtaining a copy of the Tao te Ching—perhaps at a local library (for free). The book is brief and, if you like poetry, actually somewhat relaxing to read. An annotated version with some historic reference would be preferable to a cold read if you are entirely unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy or have never read any similar texts. As timeless as it may seem to me, I have to admit that with any text, context is also important with the Tao te Ching.