Durston’s devious distortions

A few people (actually, a lot of people) have written to me asking me to address Kirk Durston’s probability argument that supposedly makes evolution impossible. I’d love to. I actually prepared extensively to deal with it, since it’s the argument he almost always trots out to debate for intelligent design, but — and this is a key point — Durston didn’t discuss this stuff at all! He brought out a few of the slides very late in the debate when there was no time for me to refute them, but otherwise, he was relying entirely on vague arguments about a first cause, accusations of corruption against atheists, and very silly biblical nonsense about Jesus. So this really isn’t about revisiting the debate at all — this is the stuff Durston sensibly avoided bringing up in a confrontation with somebody who’d be able to see through his smokescreen.

If you want to see Durston’s argument, it’s on YouTube. I notice the clowns on Uncommon Descent are crowing that this is a triumphant victory, but note again — Durston did not give this argument at our debate. In a chance to confront a biologist with his claims, Durston tucked his tail between his legs and ran away.

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Aren’t you excited? The Superbowl is tomorrow!

OK, I know, most of you probably don’t care. I know I don’t; tomorrow is a lab prep day for me, and I’ll be setting up fly stocks all afternoon. I don’t even know who is playing, and I don’t really care. Some of you might, and that’s all right — my father was a big football fan, although he couldn’t abide the Superbowl since, for all the hype, they were usually poor games — so if you choose to relax with friends and beer and watch the show, it is fine by me.

Here’s something I do find interesting, though. One of the petty annoyances of American sports is their ridiculous religiosity. There are always these showboating athletes who piously announce that their greatest triumphs are due to divine intervention (strangely, when they fumble, they don’t afterwards shake their fists at the heavens and curse their gods). It’s absurd that they believe their omnipotent deity is at all concerned about whether one team wins or another loses, but it’s common background noise at these events.

For the first time, though, I’m encountering media articles that are critical of these god-wallopers.

Does God care who wins? There are few things regarding religion that approach consensus, but it’s fair to say that most of us concur with FoxSports.com columnist Mark Kriegel, who recently wrote, “I refuse to believe that God –anyone’s God — has a rooting interest in the outcome of something as secular and perverse as a (football) game.”

And here’s an editorial where the writer just wishes they’d knock off the public god talk.

Forget the arrogance of that assumption for a moment — God is with only me. There’s something else. I assume some Pittsburgh Steelers are God-fearing men. They can’t all be heathens. So whom does God root for in the Super Bowl, the Cardinals or the Steelers?

And with wars going on all over the world and starvation and an economic collapse, with so much to attend to, does God have leisure to root at all?

Do we believe in a shallow, superficial God? God the Sports Fan?

None of these critics are saying this because they’re atheists who disbelieve this nonsense, don’t get me wrong; they all seem to be saying that these superficial attributions all trivialize faith. But they are at least doing us the favor of pointing out that these are secular games, and they’re a bit embarrassed at the silly piety. It’s a step forward, at least. Next step, point and laugh.

University of Vermont students, faculty, and alumni:

We have a Vermont alumnus among the ScienceBorg: Kevin Beck at Dr Joan Bushwell’s Chimpanzee Refuge. He’d like to coordinate a letter-writing campaign to protest UVM’s poor choice of a commencement speaker, so maybe you should go over there and leave a comment and email address.

I’m still shaking my head over this. The man’s a notorious creationist and apologist for criminal Republican administrations. Why would anyone want to honor this guy? Is it for his work as a shill for eyedrops?

University of Vermont makes an embarrassing decision

Guess who UVM is bringing in to deliver their commencement address?

Ben Stein.

I am very sorry, seniors at that otherwise fine university. You’re going to have a hack wingnut with a history of incompetence at economics, politics, and science standing up and giving you advice. I don’t know what the administrators at your school were thinking; this is a man with no qualifications other than a droning monotone and a stint on a game show. It’s an expression of profound disrespect to the students.

And I’m really sorry for the biology department at UVM — it’s a real slap in the face for the university to drag in this disgrace who has been a figurehead for a movement that is trying to replace science with superstition; a demagogue who accuses modern biology of being a destructive force responsible for the Holocaust.

I am really baffled by this decision. It’s not just that they must have been desperate for a speaker, but that someone with a real axe to grind had to have been on the committee that picked this old fraud.

Teapots seem to infuriate them almost as much as buses

We’ve been seeing an amazing amount of press given to something as simple as atheist signs on public transport, and here’s another thing that makes the apologists for religion tear their hair out: Russell’s teapot. They don’t get it. They read the idea with dumb incomprehension, and when they do try to explain it, they just expose their own silly misinterpretations. Case in point, Ross Douthat, who puts a goofy gloss on it.

This analogy – like its modern descendant, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – makes a great deal of sense if you believe that the idea of God is an absurdity dreamed up by crafty clerics in darkest antiquity and subsequently imposed on the human mind by force and fear, and that it only survives for want of brave souls willing to note how inherently absurd the whole thing is. As you might expect, I see the genesis of religion rather differently: An intuitive belief in some sort of presiding Agent seems to be an extremely common, albeit hardly universal, feature of human nature; this intuition has intersected, historically, with an enormous amount of subjective religious experience; and this intersection (along with, yes, the force of custom and tradition) has produced and sustained the religious traditions that seem to Richard Dawkins and company like so much teapot-worship. The story of our civilization, in particular, is a story in which an extremely large circle of non-insane human beings have perceived themselves to be experiencing an interaction with a being who seems recognizable as the Judeo-Christian God (here I do feel comfortable using the term), rather than merely being taught about Him in Sunday School.

Michael Drake has his own pithy reply:

Shorter Ross Douthat: Comparing belief in God to belief in the Celestial Teapot is absurd, because it’s like comparing a belief only some people know is absurd to a belief everyone knows is absurd.

I have my own version:

Shorter Ross Douthat: If enough of us imagine it, it must be real.

When I was about 10 years old, I went to see a late-night horror movie (Die, Monster, Die with Boris Karloff, if you must know; it had face-melty mutants produced by a weird meteorite kept in an old mansion), and afterwards my uncle drove me home in his old 50’s era Ford with the big bench seats high up off the floorboards. I vividly recall a terrible dread that there was something, a horrible monster, hiding under the seat, and if I let my legs dangle down, it was going to rip my feet off. I knew there wasn’t — the seats weren’t that high that Boris Karloff could fit under them — but my perfectly normal, non-insane mysterious agency perception was simply set tinglingly high by a few hours of jump-and-twitch at a monster movie, and I was imagining supernatural beings where there weren’t any.

Look. I was ten years old, high on Coca-Cola and jujubes, and I could figure that out. How old is Ross Douthat?

If you actually read Dawkins, or any of us other critics of religion, you will discover that we do not think the majority of humanity is insane, and we also don’t believe religion was cobbled up by a shadowy cabal of power-mad priests. Douthat almost has it: we know that human beings readily imagine agency even where there is none, and that it is extremely easy to feel a sensation of the existence of unseen entities, especially when you’ve been primed by an exercise in the imagination, whether it is a horror story or preacher in his pulpit. However, we do not have agency sensors, we have agency interpreters. Imagining a boogey man or a god is perfectly normal, but it does not make them real. Taking your boogey man and wrapping him up in layers and layers of ritual and tradition and over-reaching apologetics does not make him any more real.

That’s our message. It’s time to look under the car seat, gang, and see there’s nothing there. And don’t you feel silly, spending millennia going on and on about the all-powerful beastie, and finding it’s nothing but cobwebs and darkness and your own hyperactive imagination?

As for Russell’s Teapot, I have to add a little fillip to that tiny porcelain entity. As it goes trundling in its circuit about the sun, I must imagine that there is painted on its side a little sign: “There probably is no teapot. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It definitely won’t make it any more real, but it will infuriate those who believe the manifestations of imagination must have some objective reality.

Going back to our Puritan roots

The ACLU is suing Union Public School Independent District No. 9 of Oklahoma. The reason is bizarre: administrators at the school have harrassed and violated the civil rights of a young woman named Brandi Blackbear because — and I’m a bit ashamed to admit this can go on in my country — they accused her of witchcraft. They say she used a magic spell to make one of her teachers sick. In retaliation, she has been subjected to searches and public humiliation, and the school has banned the wearing of non-Christian paraphernalia.

I’m pretty sure this is the 21st century, not the 17th. You would have a tough time noticing it if you relied on religious attitudes to tell.

The article mentions that they’d like to see the school show some evidence that Blackbear actually hexed anyone. This is not a good idea. From their track record so far, the Oklahoma school administrators might think the appropriate way to do that is to call in a witchfinder and throw Blackbear into a pond, or search her for witchmarks with a large needle. And if those don’t work, there are always thumbscrews and the rack. They’ll get a confession eventually.