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Archive for October, 2008

Evolution, huh? Then where’s my crocoduck?

It’s absurd to suggest that primary school children should get any kind of sex education. Kids shouldn’t be watching porn until they’re old enough to find it for themselves on the internet.

Any psychics in the audience, please raise my hand.

Sometimes it’s really hard to argue properly against someone, especially when they’re making a lot of sense and presenting lots of supportive facts, and even more so if you yourself happen to be full of shit. But the great thing about logical fallacies is that you can quite merrily argue against someone else, someone with a much less defensible position, and still claim a victory.

Sounds so much easier than actually responding to your opponent’s points with sincerity and understanding, doesn’t it? Particularly when the someone else you’re arguing against doesn’t even exist, and is a mere hypothetical construct entirely conjured up by yourself, for the sole purpose of smacking them down and calling your real opponent a failure.

A straw man is just such a construct. Pretend that your opponent’s position is something different from what it actually is, and explain why they’re wrong for believing something that they don’t really believe.

It’s a popular one with creationists who misunderstand (willfully or otherwise) the claims of evolutionary science, and assert that the lack of any dogs seen giving birth to cats undermines anything Darwin might ever have written. (Actually, evolution doesn’t predict this should happen; in fact there’s nothing in the entire field of biology which could possibly explain something so bizarre.)

And it’s something which skeptics need to be careful of when questioning people’s unlikely-sounding claims about, say, paranormal abilities. Maybe it does seem strange how few psychics have ever won the lottery, but it could be that we’re just misunderstanding the nature of the claim, in the same way the creationists are.

This is why Randi is always so painstakingly scrupulous about getting a detailed description of exactly what an applicant says they can do, and under what conditions, before testing them for the Million Dollar Challenge – to paraphrase one of his own examples, it’s no use trying to prove that someone isn’t really a musician by sitting them down at a piano and demanding some Beethoven, if they claim to be a flautist.

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This is another updated and altered version of something I wrote a while ago. It was initially kicked off by a creationist article, where some guy boringly repeats yet again the tedious fallacy that evolutionary processes can be equated with moral decisions.

If you are an “evolutionist” – which I think means, if you are persuaded by the evidence that replication with random variation in a competitive environment is the most likely explanation for the observable variety of living organisms in the world – then, apparently, it necessarily follows that those creatures which are “fitter” than their rivals in some evolutionary sense are also morally “better”, and biology is the only thing that can give us any ideas of moral “goodness”.

This is what’s technically known as “retarculous fuckwittery”.

The idea of evolution is pretty scary to some people, so closely associated as it is with a meaningless, godless worldview. The idea that an entirely natural process could be how the entire human race came about, that we weren’t created specifically by any god and really aren’t all that special in the grand scheme of things, has a lot of big implications, which can be a lot to take in if it’s not an idea you’re used to. The fallacy known as the “argument from final consequences” will get its own entry in the Skeptictionary in time, but it’s clear why so many would feel compelled to reject evolution on the basis of the unthinkable things which seem to result from it.

But science is about studying the way the world works, identifying things that happen, and examining the question of how they happen. It’s about facts. Evolution is a fact. It’s not like we haven’t observed it taking place quite a bit. And even if for some reason you don’t buy that idea, you can at least grasp that the theory is a description of what scientists believe happens.

Which has bugger all to do with what may or may not be good.

It entirely misunderstands science to claim that, because research has been done and the world seems to work a certain way, our sense of morality should be blindly and arbitrarily defined by the principles that scientists “hold dear”. It’s like expecting that anyone who accepts the theory of gravity will spend their time frantically nailing everything to the floor, to stop objects from blasphemously moving upwards.

The fact is, there’s this thing called down, which is where stuff tends to fall. That’s just how the universe works. Any moral decisions are an irrelevancy in noticing this trend. It’s not that they shouldn’t go up, by any moral or ethical mandate, but the application of a downward gravitational force is just what happens.

And another thing about how the universe works, is that when there is replication among a population of entities, mutations in replication that cause variation among them, and differential fitness providing competitive pressures based on specific attributes of those entities, there will happen to occur processes of Darwinian natural selection. It’s just what happens.

Morality is a whole different study. Encouraging something not entirely in line with these Darwinian principles is no more immoral than doing star jumps and yelling “Suck it, Newton!” And doctors who acknowledge evolution, which is what that original Answers in Genesis article was about, aren’t “working against the driving force of nature”. They’re dealing with the Shit that proverbially Happens, and trying to make things better. Not more natural, not more in line with the laws of thermodynamics – those can look after themselves. Just more appropriate, and more desirable, based on things like compassion and humanity. Scientists can hold those dear, too.

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It’s hard to start writing an overview to evolution without feeling that everything I’m saying is either already established to the point of tedium, or blindingly obvious – but, given how little some people seem to know about it, I suppose I shouldn’t presume too much about what’s obvious or what “everybody” already knows.

This is a summary of my understanding of the subject, but it’s an understanding gleaned somewhat incidentally, by casually reading various books and blogs, some more academic than others. I’m not really an academic myself, and certainly not in the field of biology. In this piece and its future sub-articles I’m trying to recount things as best I can in my own terms, but you may find plenty of useful corrections and clarifications elsewhere: Wikipedia’s entry on evolution and the links cited, The TalkOrigins Archive, and the writings of any number of people smarter than me, might be a good place to start. I’m very much a layman at this, which will be obvious from my general avoidance of any kind of terminology (and of factual accuracy too, most likely).

Evolution, of the contentious biological variety, basically has three fundamental aspects you need to understand.

1. A population of replicators

I don’t know whether Stargate SG-1 fans are ever likely to form a large part of my reader-base, but don’t worry about the replicators. Sci-fi villains aside, this just refers to some entity which can produce copies of itself, with no particular desire to deconstruct every particle of matter in the universe to do so.

A bacterium will split apart to produce two identical bacteria, which will in turn both split and reproduce, rather slower than you’ve probably seen in those rather eerie microscope videos. Plants produce seeds, which produce more plants. A chicken lays an egg, out of which hatches another chicken. And people do all manner of freaky things, some of which result in creating more people. There are replicators all over the place.

2. A source of variation among the replicators

Nothing’s going to evolve if every new generation is exactly like the last. There needs to be something to cause slightly different copies to be made, at least some of the time. In creatures that sexually reproduce, a random selection of genes is inherited from each parent, which contributes to things getting mixed up – so, I have my dad’s eyebrows and occasionally abrasive laugh, but not his snoring; I have my mum’s long arms, but not her tolerance of high temperatures; I have myopia from both of them, but my militantly atheistic streak came out of nowhere. (Or something. Genetically speaking, this might be a really bad example, but hopefully you see what I mean.)

Also, stuff can come along and randomly throw a spanner in the works, mutating an offspring’s DNA so that it turns out different from that of its parent or parents – stuff like radiation, or viruses, or just errors in the DNA copying itself, when a carbon atom doesn’t quite behave itself or a protein doesn’t bother to proofread its work.

My technical ignorance is dazzling even myself here. Suffice it to say that some organisms of any species will be harder, better, faster, stronger, or whateverer, than their fellows, simply by virtue of not being entirely identical in every way. This happens, and is necessary for the process of evolution by Darwinian natural selection to take place. There’s one more thing we need, though.

3. Competition among the varying replicators

You’re also not going to see much evolving going on if every creature, and their children, and their children’s children, has all the space to run around and play and frolic that they could want, and all the food they can eat, and all the mating opportunities they have the energy for. It’s a jungle out there, in the scary place we call nature, and not everyone’s going to make it. Only a few of any population of organisms are likely to make it over all of life’s hurdles, keeping sufficiently warm and sheltered and nourished and healthy to get as far as passing on any of their genetic material; many more will become an evolutionary dead-end, also known as “lunch”.

But it’s not a total crapshoot which organisms are lucky enough to get lucky, so that their genetic information gets another shot at doing it all over again. There are some variations that provide a definite advantage over other creatures. My shag-carpet eyebrows might not be of any particular advantage to me, but a cheetah (or a gazelle) could certainly benefit hugely from happening to have just slightly stronger leg muscles than its equally hungry (or edible) friends.

Or some birds might happen to have slightly differently shaped beaks, which turn out to be more suitable for acquiring whatever food is available to them; or some butterflies might randomly have a pattern of colour on their wings which makes them look a bit scary and possibly dangerous, to the kind of thing that might normally want to eat a less dangerous looking butterfly; or some line of apes might find that their DNA has provided them with slightly bigger skulls than before, and room for slightly bigger brains, with neurons connected slightly differently, which gives them abilities that make them more effective predators and survivors than the other apes. Whatever the scenario, some of the variations that arise will make particular creatures better suited to their environment; those creatures will have a better chance of passing on exactly those traits to their offspring, which means more and more instances of those traits will be seen.

That’s the bare bones of it. Organisms that are better equipped to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes are, tautologically, more likely to pass on to their offspring the very genes that made them so well equipped. All other things being equal, certain randomly varying traits will turn out to be more advantageous than others in any particular population, and those traits will become more prevalent over an increasing number of generations. The Theory of Evolution is a model that describes how these processes account for the entire variety of life observed on the planet, including all human life, down from those very first amino acids, or whatever exactly kicked it all off.

This merits a huge number of subcategories and more specific discussions, some of which I hope to get around to writing sometime before the eventual heat death of the universe. This is just a useful starting point.

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Tarvu tarvooti

Oh, what a fool I’ve been.

I thought science and reason were all I needed to live by, and thought I was happy in my godless existence, but finally I’ve discovered the wonderful truth of Tarvu. At last my life has the mdfitty numnum I never knew it was missing. Tarvuism is such a glorious thing to be a part of, and it’s SO easy to JOIN.

Hebbo!

Yes, I’m still planning on posting something properly soon. Just readjusting to having a job with a horrible commute that leaves me drained and lazy.

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Of little consequence

See, I said I wasn’t going to post every day any more, and look, I was totally slack yesterday and posted not a damn thing. Screw you, internets, and your fascist “one post a day” rule guideline for successful blogging. I don’t need your advice, or your custom, or your fancy internet popularity with more than 20 pageviews a day. Pah.

Anyway, I’ve got a job again, more thrilling temp work in lovely Croydon. So now I have a headache and no energy to do anything useful. The Skeptictionary will progress at its own rate though; next up is an intro post on evolution, from which many more specific articles will hopefully stem. I might even do some research for some of them. Anything’s possible.

Well, maybe not quite anything. Trying to cure homosexuality’s still pretty retarded.

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There are people who claim that every word of their particular edition and translation of the Bible is absolutely true, and thank Jesus daily for the mysterious and divine processes through which everyone who disagrees with them about anything is totally wrong. A lot of them won’t even qualify the word “true” with more than the scantest of ifs and buts, either. Some will attempt to compromise more than others, by talking about allegory and metaphor, but all that usually focuses on the trippy stuff near the beginning. And the really trippy stuff at the end. Okay, and some of the freakier shit in the middle.

People still want to be able to call the creation story “true”, even though it places the age of the Earth at around six thousand years, and some things (eg. pretty much all the matter in the Universe) seem to have been around for longer than that. There are dozens of related topics here, and I will try and expand on all of this in future essays, rather than being outright dismissive and leaving it at that. You’ll see the Skeptictionary list on the right being updated with new stuff when I figure out what direction to take things next. Comment with ideas if you want to nudge me along.

This, and this article which details some of my initial thoughts on Biblical literalism, are adapted for the Skeptictionary from some earlier stuff.

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Judas’ death

This is the topic that originally prompted me to expound on some general ideas about how Biblical literalism tends to go, and some of the problems with it. I’m not going to bring any pesky “evidence” or inconvenient “facts” into things here. I just have an observation about the way people often attempt to reconcile the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.

Using the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible edition, Matthew 27:5 reads: “And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.

And Acts 1:18 reads: “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.

Ew. They encourage kids to read this stuff, you know. Both of these passages are about the death of Judas, the guy who took the “thirty pieces of silver” idiom way too literally when he betrayed Jesus. He then went on to marry Mary Magdalene, father the bloodline of Leonardo da Vinci, establish at least eight secret societies which would rule the world two thousand years later, and hide the Holy Grail in Castle Anthrax. (I think it was something like that, anyway. I may have dropped some acid when I watched the Da Vinci Code movie. Good times.)

There would seem to be some problems for the literalists here, inasmuch as reality is ever a problem for these people. The first one says he hanged himself, and the second… I dunno, maybe he tripped and fell on something pointy. Obvious contradiction, no?

Well, not necessarily. The standard justification, for protecting people’s minds against the horrifying notion that the Bible might be wrong about something, is to contrive a death scene which, in however roundabout a way, satisfies both of the descriptions given. Judas hanged himself, he died, the decomposition process caused his body to become bloated and corpulent, the rope around his neck frayed and snapped, and he fell to the ground and his guts burst open. Don’t think it couldn’t happen, people. (Seriously, I don’t know much about what would happen to a human body post-mortem in a situation like that, but this sounds plausible enough to me.)

It could even be argued that Matthew never actually claims that Judas died as a result of the hanging – maybe his first attempt failed, so he went and threw himself over a cliff, which could have counted for “falling headlong”, I guess. Either way, it all adds up. Praise the Lord, thank-yoo Jay-sus.

Except… not really. That’s some non-trivial verbal gymnastics we’ve had to go through to make this idea work. The scenarios that we’ve come up with to explain it, while plausible, are both significantly different from what’s actually described in either passage alone. If you only read Matthew, it makes it seem very straightforward: he hanged, he died, no gushing of bowels necessary. But looking only at Acts would lead you to a whole nother picture of what happened to him, leaving out any kind of noose system entirely, and giving Judas some kind of scary Jon Hurt moment, or perhaps just sudden, fatal, explosive diarrhoea.

It seems that we’re being given unhelpfully contradictory clues scattered throughout the complete text, and are left with the challenge of fitting the pieces together ourselves into some sort of coherent structure, requiring an excessively generous dose of deductive logic to do so. It might not be irreconcilable, but it doesn’t help your case when you need to work from the assumption that everything you’re reading is true, and then make stuff up to keep this assumption feasible.

Damn near anything could probably be worked into a coherent scenario with enough mangling of the text, if you’re willing to do some heavy-duty text-mangling to keep your belief system safe. If there was an additional mention of the event somewhere in Luke, say, which described Judas as being burned alive in a giant Wicker Man, then I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, would be claiming that this was a reference to some specific funereal tradition of the time, and that the word “alive” refers to the idea of the soul remaining in the body until this ritual releases it. Or possibly even something more plausible than the first crazy shit that sprung to my mind. If John claimed that Judas was eaten by velociraptors, then I would totally become a Christian and make this the basis of my entire belief system, and I would concoct as elaborate an explanatory scenario as was necessary to convince myself of its truth.

But if you’re going to think like this, then there’s nothing that could possibly prove you wrong, or undermine your position in any way, however much it supports an alternative explanation to the one you favour. And thinking as inflexibly as this is never good, because on the off-chance that you are wrong to begin with, you’re screwed. Even if you decide that you’re not going to see anything in the Bible as an internal contradiction, however contradictory, then passages like the above certainly shouldn’t lead you to the idea that it supports itself. The convoluted explanation for how Judas died isn’t backed up anywhere else, by any description that directly suggests that that’s what happened, let alone by anything actually credible. Even if you choose not to see it as an inconsistency, something requiring such lateral-thinking problem-solving as this ought to raise a red flag or two, and make you wonder whether there’s enough of a reason outside of this passage to take the contrived work-around seriously.

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I’ve been having fun and feeling useful lately, adding to the Skeptictionary at a pretty good rate, and I’m thinking I might shift my priorities more in that direction, let myself off the rule of posting something at least once a day, and just work on updating that as fast as I can manage it. I like the idea of really developing something there, an actual useful resource, as well as getting in lots of practice at writing well, and giving myself a reason to do some research into interesting areas. Not that anyone’s actually reading this damn thing yet, but I think that’d be cool.

So, I may be slowing down my posting rate a little, and trying to come up with some more substantial material to make up for it. Just thought I should put that down here officially on the record.

And yes, it is a complete coincidence that I’ve decided on this after spending all day slouching around my flat, eating popcorn and watching movies and playing annoying flash games online. Well spotted.

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Well, is he?

It’s a central tenet of Christianity (though certainly not one held by every Christian I know) that only through accepting and praising Jesus Christ as the son of God can any of us be “saved” – that is, reaching a state of being worthy to enter Heaven. Clearly I have some problems with the whole God thing in the first place, but let’s try not to get bogged down in petty details like whether or not he actually exists.

So, we’re supposed to accept Jesus. Anyone who fails to meet this simple criterion will be destined instead for an eternity of… well, something less desirable, be it Hell, or the somewhat more vanilla terminus of Purgatory, or something else which, however you look at it, doesn’t equate to an infinite reward. Well, that sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Hardly seems like God’s asking for a whole lot, just that you “accept him into your heart” and pray for his blessing. And think of all the things he’s done for you lately, what with creating the Universe and bringing you into existence and everything. You can’t do him this one little favour? You wretched ingrate.

But srsly, folks.

The biggest fly in my frankincense about all this is that I’ve also been told a whole bunch of other stuff about what’ll be good for me after I’m dead. When I compare all that other stuff to this particular claim about Jesus, it all looks damn near identical as far as I can tell, in style, conviction, and realism, while being totally different and mutually exclusive in content. Surely the least that a respectable omnipotent deity could do is to make his own divine word stand out a bit, from the numerous tribal legends and other stuff that people just made up. Especially if there’s really so much riding on it, and if God actually gives a crap what happens to our eternal souls (which most religions claim he does, though they call it ‘benevolence’ more commonly than ‘giving a crap’).

There are many other religions around, which make similar claims about the importance of adhering to their tenets, and many people of differing faiths seem to believe that theirs is the only path to salvation. Even if you’re sure that your own exclusive claim to salvation is the right one, you have to at least admit that many people are sincerely mistaken.

But let’s imagine for now that the requirement that we accept Jesus is convincingly authentic. Still, this doesn’t seem like an obvious thing on which everyone’s eternal fate should rest. If your supreme overlord’s biggest concern really is how much time his subjects spend singing about how great he is, then fair enough. But many religions, including Christianity, also place a lot of emphasis on how we actually behave towards each other. This may sometimes have some connection to a person’s divine ass-kissing quotient, but they’re not the same thing.

The Top Dog, the Big Cheese, the Head Honcho

You might ask – as I rather flippantly did a few paragraphs ago – whether God doesn’t deserve some praise for all the hard work he’s put in over the years, towards the creation of, well, Creation, and its subsequent maintenance. Maybe this justifies the importance of accepting Jesus: God deserves credit for his work, and we lesser mortals really ought to give him his due.

I’ll happily admit that, if it does turn out that I have some divine being to thank for all that’s good in my life, then I have a lot to be grateful for. But whether or not his latest work deserves any five-star reviews is a different matter entirely from whether this earns him the right to be petulant about getting the credit for it. Even if he were real, I’d have no interest in bowing and scraping to a god immature enough to throw a strop and eternally condemn anyone who dares to be unimpressed by his magnum opus.

Actually, that’s a lie. The only appropriate response to really knowing of the existence of such a monster would be to cower in terror and do anything, everything, to keep him from punishing us to the full extent of his omnipotence. Write a hymn? Done. An hour a day in silent contemplation of his glory and wonder? Have two. Sacrifice of my first-born son? I’ll get the kitchen knife. Never was that attached to the kid. But to respond like this, it’d be necessary to really believe in such a god in the first place.

And I don’t. There are many reasons why people believe things, but broadly speaking, because I’ve not had the idea hammered into my skull throughout my upbringing until it became a part of my worldview that it would be unthinkable to abandon, and because I’ve never been at a particularly emotionally vulnerable point in my life and turned to religion for solace or been taken advantage of, and because I’m not that irrational, I don’t believe that a god exists who expects and demands that I accept him as my saviour before allowing me any kind of post-mortem payoff. (Pardon the ever-so-slight generalisations there.)

And that’s the word

If such a god did exist, though, then this brings up the issue of “spreading the word”. Many human lives will unquestionably be lived out in entire ignorance of the name of Jesus, or of even the concept of the Christian God. Many children die in infancy, or grow up in cultures where other faiths rule and Christianity is never heard of. Is a full and comprehensive embrace of Jesus really the only way that anyone is going to avoid an infinite and undesirable fate, even the poor saps who never had any opportunity to know him, to accept him, or to do anything to piss him off?

If your god allows the whole experience of existence, for thousands upon thousands of people, to amount to nothing more than a small handful of confusing days in the world with no language, little motor ability, and a barely developed cognitive capacity, followed by an eternity in torment as a result of not accepting him, then your god is a more fucked-up and evil piece of work than I have any wish to consider. It’s his doing, directly and utterly, and no sanctimonious and pandering bullshit about baptism or free will or predestination or “mysterious ways” can change the fact that this scenario paints him as a twisted sadist.

Boy, is it me or did the buzz just totally die in here? Toning down the indignant rhetoric, this is still a big problem for anyone making the “Jesus is the only escape hatch” claim. What precisely does this mean? Where are the exact boundaries? Who, specifically, is going to go to Hell (or otherwise miss out on the heavenly delights on offer to those of the correct faith)? Maybe an exception can be made for kids who haven’t had the chance, but where’s the demarcation? Does it become a person’s responsibility to accept Christ or face damnation once they reach a particular age? What if they’re mentally handicapped in some way and can’t understand the choice they’re supposed to make? What if they’re perfectly mentally capable, but still either don’t understand or don’t accept the limited options allegedly available to them? Are they to be punished for stubbornness, or stupidity, or being ill-informed?

What if they live in some obscure part of the world where the Gospel is never preached? If people who never hear about Jesus are safe from Hell, since the option of accepting him really isn’t open to them, then isn’t going out there and telling people about Jesus the absolute worst thing you can possibly do to someone? We should try and destroy all evidence of his existence and never mention him again, so that future generations can be safely ignorant, if that were the case. But that’s not an idea that’s ever really taken off.

Even if Christianity does have many benefits, such as being the only way to “know” God or to live a truly fulfilled life on Earth, is it worth opening people up to the possibility of eternal hellfire just to tell them about it? If you’ve rationalised away some “special circumstances” by now, might it not make more sense to suppose that people earn their place in the afterlife, wherever that might be, through the life they live, regardless of which god they happen to believe in?

Again, if Jesus is the turning point, where is the line drawn? To stretch the point, if dead babies and those who never hear the good news get a pass, but for most people merely knowing about Jesus suddenly makes us obliged to follow him, what degree of knowledge necessitates this?

“*cough*jesuschristislord*cough*”
“Pardon?”
“I said, uh, pass the salt.”

Yes, this is a silly example, but if ignorance of Jesus is enough to let you off the hook, and a passing mention like this also wouldn’t condemn you for subsequently failing to obey God’s word, when does it become a vital requirement to be a Christian?

If you passed somebody in the street who was smiling slightly maniacally, handing out spiritual books with great enthusiasm, and telling people how wonderful the world is once you accept the love of the almighty Krntqz, I’m guessing you’d move on swiftly and try not to make eye contact. This is not a worldview you’re familiar with, it clashes with your own, and this person’s behaviour looks far more like that of a certifiable lunatic than a true prophet. People in cultures far different from our own have undoubtedly had identical reactions to a similar scenario, in which the word “Krntqz” is merely replaced with “Jesus”. Would you have earned Krntqz’s anger, if he turns out to be the one true god, any less than they should incur the wrath of Yahweh?

The Book of Jeff

Imagine a person who is, by some unlikely mechanism necessitated by this thought experiment, unaware of any religion. This person – let’s call him Jeff – has never stopped even to consider the notion of a god before, and is a naive, impressionable, good-natured sort of chap. One day, Jeff is suddenly and simultaneously set upon and evangelised to by two different religious fanatics.

“Hey,” one shouts, “have you heard the good news about Jesus? He’s the son of God, and the one truth path to righteousness and salvation is through him!”

“No,” cries the other. “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet! Honour him and you will be spared his wrath!”

“Here,” continues the first, “read this Bible, it is the inspired word of God! It tells the truth about his purpose for us and the laws by which we should live if we are to honour him. Praise Jesus!”

“No, ignore this blasphemy!” retorts the second. “Read the Qur’an, and learn about Allah, the one true God, or face eternal hellfire!”

Then they both start fighting and ignore Jeff before he can ask for clarification.

On the face of it, what should our hapless, hypothetical fellow do? Both of the ideas he’s had thrown at him would be massively important if they prove to be true, but neither one is obviously superior or more likely, based solely on what he’s heard so far. This is all entirely new to poor old Jeff, remember, and neither one of these strangers accosting him and shouting things is any more persuasive than the other, from his unfamiliar position. His entire experience of both religions has been to be briefly proselytised at by two equally enthusiastic proponents. What is our protagonist to do?

If you want Jeff to be a Christian, turn to page 72. If you – sorry, my mind wandered a bit there. Back on track now.

For one thing, he might try reading both of these holy books he’s just learned about, and try to decide whether one or other of them really is the word of the all-powerful creator of the Universe. He might try to reach a decision about this by examining what’s written in these books, and the claims they make for these religions, and doing his best to determine which one (at a minimum) of the two was most probably made up by some humans in a more primitive society, who were struggling to understand the world and whose lack of modern knowledge shows through in what we now see as misconceptions in their writings. Presumably, any text actually inspired by an omnipotent and omniscient deity would look decidedly different from that.

If you think that studying and scrutinising each available text, seeing how well it corresponds to the world around him, and measuring it up to what seems to be real, is the correct way for Jeff to proceed, then what you’re supporting there is something called the scientific method. Science is all about doing this kind of testing, finding out what’s probably real by seeing how it looks from every angle of scrutiny possible, and if there’s any way that something can be shown to be wrong.

If, in the case of our intrepid researcher, he reads one text and find it to be just a bunch of ramblings from some jumped-up tribespeople with delusions of grandeur, but the other speaks to him deeply and describes great and profound truths about the world which could not possibly be attributed to mere mortal man, then he’ll have come to a conclusion by applying the scientific method, however rigorously.

But if this is the kind of approach that God wants us to take, then I’m afraid the modern scientific concensus overwhelmingly rejects the need for the God hypothesis. Personal testimony can do little to counter the reams of scientific literature supporting the assertion that the natural world is entirely explicable without getting him involved. The research done in every field strongly implies that books like the Bible and the Qur’an are significantly composed of myth, fable, and other inaccuracies, compiled by primitive peoples trying to understand a complex world over the course of centuries. From looking at the world, and studying the way things are, it seems entirely reasonable not to conclude that any particular deity is necessarily real, making it rather unreasonable that any paticular deity should punish us eternally for omitting him from our beliefs.

The only alternative to this kind of investigation seems to be to ignore any kind of process of observing the universe and testing one’s ideas about how it works, and just have faith anyway. But… just have faith in what? How is Jeff supposed to know whether it’s Jesus or Mohammed he should be blindly praising? Without making observations, testing them, and trying to refine an accurate picture of the Universe, how can he hope to distinguish between divinity and story-telling in his belief system?

Some people try to explain this by talking about personal revelation, and feeling the presence of Jesus in a way that science can’t address – but if it’s knowable, it’s subject to scientific enquiry. Some people get stoned and feel a deep spiritual connection to Scooby-Doo. Others pray and find Jesus. If we can know with any degree of certainty that one of those feelings is more real than the other, it’s only through testing it, trying to see if we’re wrong, or if our ideas stand up to scrutiny. That’s called science.

I’ll write some more for the Skeptictionary about faith itself soon, because that’s what a large part of this argument comes down to. But the claim that we must accept Jesus, either under all circumstances or just some subset, seems irreconcilable with any notion of fairness or consistency that I can come up with. As always, feel free to tell me what I’ve failed to consider.

This was adapted a little for the Skeptictionary from some earlier stuff I wrote.

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Why bother?

If you’re an atheist, then you know as well as I do that life is a yawning chasm of despair and hopelessness, and you surely long for sweet oblivion to finally put an end to the whole pointless charade. But fret not! Spit out that handful of pills, put down the razorblades and step away from your wrists! Life doesn’t have to be empty and without meaning just because you don’t believe in a god or an afterlife.

Let’s look at this supposedly miserable atheistic worldview. We’re all going to just die, and then that’ll be it. All our feelings and emotions, and everything else that makes us who we are, will one day come to an end. We will effectively become nothing, and so will everything else. The effects of every single event that has ever occurred will eventually be nullified. Nothing lasts forever, and all will one day be forgotten.

Seriously, put down the razorblades, I’m going somewhere with this.

Although this might sound rather bleak, does it really change anything all that much if you insert God into the mix? Assume he comes pre-packaged with that “eternal life” deal he’s often said to provide, for all those “souls” he apparently dishes out left and right to just about anyone with the sense to be born. If that’s really true for us, how much does it actually affect the purpose of our lives?

In this scenario, we’ve got an eternity stretching out ahead of us – Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, some combination of the above, or something else entirely. Why would this add significance to anything we do in this particular life-span? Things which have profound and hugely affecting resonances in this world will, presumably, be forgotten and rendered moot in an insignificant sliver of time, compared with our infinite future. Although it might seem like a big deal now if I murdered your family, they were all immortal anyway; it’ll only be a short wait before we’ll have countless trillions of years to stop caring about anything that happened in this lifetime.

I really can’t fathom any good reason why people should believe that only a universe with a god can provide our lives with any purpose, except as a knee-jerk reaction to the scary idea that we might one day cease to exist. Feel free to chip in and tell me what I’ve failed to consider.

Changing tack a little, I know some people who both believe in God, and like eating cake. Let’s call one such sweet-toothed churchgoer Mabel, because I think it’d be cool to have a friend named Mabel. When Mabel’s chomping away on some gateau, is there anything involved in her enjoyment other than the chocolatey goodness? Does she have any long-term goals in mind, relating to the fate of her immortal soul? Would it sadden her, and destroy her ability to enjoy her baked treat, if she believed that one day there would be no more cake? Is there likely to be anything even remotely connected to her religious convictions on her mind while she helps herself to another slice? Or is she simply delighting in how delicious and moist it is?

The world has so much for us to take pleasure in, of which cake is only one small part. We can ascribe value and meaning where it suits us, without being ordered to suck up to the Big Guy in the clouds and told that this is the only way we can make our existence worthwhile. We can live this life as if it were our last, without having to be constantly watching and moderating our behaviour with some uncertain eternal future in mind. Whatever seems like a big deal now, is a big deal. We can make things matter to us. We can make our purpose.

And when we die, maybe that’ll be it. Hopefully we’ll have found some fulfilment, however we defined that, and left some worthwhile legacy for the people who helped give our lives that purpose. Or maybe that won’t be it, in which case we’ll see what happens next. I’ll be fascinated if it turns out that there’s more to come, but if not, I’m enjoying myself while I last.

I’m hungry now. Anyone got any cake?

Or pie? I could settle for pie.

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