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A recent experience with a Julian Baggini audiobook about the virtues of atheism made me wonder: What does the narrator think of all this?

This particular title is not read by the author, but by someone who I suppose may be a professional voice artist of some kind. At any rate, she’s not necessarily in the business of publicly denouncing religion. I have no idea what her beliefs are. She may be a devout Christian. She’s just making a living by reading someone else’s words aloud.

So what’s going through her mind, while she reads aloud someone else’s words, if they happen to conflict sharply with her established beliefs?

The case Baggini’s making for atheism, after all, is pretty strong, and many of the most obvious religious objections and complaints are rebutted effectively. To be clear, I have no reason to assume anything about what this particular narrator believes, but if someone in her position were devout, and held a prejudice against atheists born of ignorance, and was encountering this defence for the first time, and she suddenly can’t avoid taking it all on board because it’s her job to read it and speak it out loud, in its entirely, clearly and articulately…

…would she learn something from it?

I’m obviously not suggesting that simply encountering an atheistic line of reasoning is enough to guarantee immediate conversion, but it seems like there’d be a good chance that some of it would have to stick. Given how often fundamentalists seem determined to repeat the same tired old nonsense which has been debunked long, long ago, it seems like many of the objections to atheism and evolution and basic science could be overcome if only people would pay attention.

Clearly, someone working as a professional voice artist has little choice but to pay attention. Could an experience like that make her rethink her philosophy?

Maybe there’s an interesting project to be attempted here. Atheists and believers could each put together a brief tract that argues one particular point of contention as thoroughly as possible – then, someone (or a number of people) from the other camp produces a decent-quality audio version of their arguments, adding sincerity and appropriate inflection as much as possible, so that the strongest knock-down arguments of their adversaries are absolutely unavoidable in their own minds. The recordings could be shared, and maybe the readers could discuss whether they felt they learned anything from it, whether any new perspective was added by having to play devil’s advocate, so to speak.

Is Chesterton in the public domain yet? I’ve been meaning to read some of his non-fiction. Maybe I could do something for Librivox.

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The Skeptical Nurse has spent much of the morning reacting to an idiot who she saw on the tellybox yesterday. Go find out why evolution is not impossible and ducks are awesome.

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– A TED talk from Clay Shirky on the problem with SOPA.

– “Just like John Kerry, he speaks French, too.” The Republican candidates are genuinely attacking each other for having acquired new skills and abilities. Who are they even pandering to?

– You might get what you wish for, even if you don’t get what you want. This blog on Artificial Intelligence continues to be one whose updates I look forward to the most.

– Wow. Apparently you really can become a world-famous religious authority, even when your arguments aren’t a jot more sophisticated than “Christianity is true because Jesus, and we know other religions aren’t true because there’s no Jesus in them and the Bible is special, QED!”

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It’s true. There’s been a big misunderstanding. People who believe in the literal truth of the Bible aren’t anti-science at all. That’s just one of those vicious rumours spread by secularists who can’t even really tell you what science is.

The Bible isn’t against “established” science at all. That’s just an example of poor research. Creationists and evolutionists disagree about historical science – beliefs about the past – but not operational science – the kind that’s based on direct observation and has given us the modern technology we all enjoy.

Of course, this is complete tish and fipsy.

But one of the few things Ken Ham at Answers in Genesis understands about science is that it’s a valuable system of knowledge about the world, whose precepts are positive and desirable. He gets why it’s a useful thing to claim to support. Among the many things he doesn’t understand are the processes of observation and hypothesis testing that make up the bulk of important and useful scientific research.

The distinction he imagines between “operational science” and “historical science” is a notable example. He’s implying that only one kind of science is built on “direct observation” – the kind where you can see things as they happen, and whose theories provide a basis for all the technologies and developments we find useful. The other kind of science is the one about which creationists disagree with evolutionists, and whose only purpose is to indoctrinate children with “beliefs” about the past that are specifically constructed to undermine Christianity. This historical science can’t be based on direct observation, because everything it talks about is already in the past.

Here’s why this is crap:

Have you ever reached a solid conclusion about anything that happened in the past, but which you weren’t there to personally witness?

The answer is yes. Yes, you have. And if you give it even a few seconds’ thought, it’s not hard to see how our observations can directly inform us about the past.

Until fairly recently, I would sometimes come home and observe a foul-smelling pile of gloopy disgustment on the living room carpet, and would conclude from this that the cat had thrown up. I didn’t need to see it happen in order to be able to deduce this with considerable certainty. Further, entirely unnecessary research might have informed my idea of past events even further, by estimating a precise time at which he’d ejected his breakfast, or by figuring out exactly what Kirsty had fed him that morning which had disagreed with him, but this never struck me as a fruitful line of endeavour.

Another example: There’s a good chance that your parents have had sex. There’s also a good chance you’ve never directly observed this, and a much greater chance still that you haven’t seen the particular occasion in question. But there are some fairly clear facts about your origins available to you, despite a complete lack of witnesses. (It’s possible you were the result of some artificial fertilisation process, but there are still facts that can be ascertained or ruled out in this case.)

And perhaps the most obvious counterpoint to Ken Ham’s misunderstanding is also the most ironic. No Christian alive today has directly observed the creation of the world, or the life of Jesus. The only “direct observation” powering their belief in these things is that they read the Bible.

Ken Ham uses scare quotes when describing the “knowledge” about the past known as “historical science”, as if to imply that the lack of immediate, contemporaneous observation destroys any hope of acquiring actual knowledge. But this is thoroughly unimaginative. Many events of the past have left their mark on the world today, and sciences such as paleontology, cosmology, and geology are all about tracking down and examining those marks so as to build up a more detailed picture of what sort of Universe might have left them there. They make testable hypotheses about what future observations they expect to make, including suggestions as to what observations would falsify their theory if they ever occurred.

Of course historical scientists use direct observations to infer knowledge about the past. Creationists do a similar thing, but they stick to a single book of data as their only object of direct observation for everything they want to know, and refuse to subject it to any reasonable critical analysis. I’ll take the approach which actually looks at the world and updates its ideas accordingly.

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Hemant recently asked this on his blog, looking for suggestions of the kinds of things that every atheist should be aware of.

There are some good suggestions appearing in the comments thread there, but also some rather specific and niche ideas, and some weird tangents onto stuff like homeopathy. If the question was about what every skeptic should know, then I’d take a different approach, but here I’ll just throw out some ideas relating to atheism specifically.

1. If you’re an atheist, it doesn’t mean you need to do anything.

This is worth remembering. There are absolutely no obligations of any kind that come with not being convinced by arguments for God’s existence. There are no regular meetings you must attend. There are no leaders you must respect. There are no doctrines you must accept. Aside from unrelated things like the laws of wherever you live, you can be an atheist and get on with your life literally any way you choose, with no extra baggage.

You also don’t have to stop doing anything you want to. You’re welcome to celebrate Christmas, curse a deity when you bang your toe, and even go to church. Maybe you still like singing some of the songs. There’s no atheist council that will eject you from its ranks for that.

2. There are plenty of non-believers out there, even if they don’t call themselves atheists.

A poll a few years ago indicated that 91% of US citizens believe in “God or a higher power”. That might seem like a high number, but it means that nearly one in ten people don’t believe. (In the UK, it’s a third.) Not in a personal god, nor even in a vague, spiritual sense that there must be something out there.

A more recent Gallup poll has 14% of people answering “None” to the question of their religious preference. That’s one in seven. And that doesn’t include the “Other” or “Undesignated” answers. By any metric, non-believers outnumber Jews in America substantially.

Think about that the next time you’re in a crowded place with more than a few dozen people milling around. It may depend on exactly where you are, but there’s a good chance, statistically, that there’ll be a fair few atheists in the crowd.

Heck, don’t even go and find a crowd. Go online and find some of the many, many forums and communities and blogs where people are talking about this kind of thing. There’ll be a lot of divergent opinion (see point 1) and you won’t mesh well with every group out there, but there’s no shortage of potentially welcoming like-minded folk, all over the world.

3. Evolution is a fact.

I know I said I was going to stick to things directly related to godlessness, but this feels worth mentioning. There’s a good chance that one of the most common objections you’ll run into from religious people, in discussions about your atheism, will be about how there must be a God to have created everything in the world.

Theists will often bring up the existence of the Universe as a whole, rather than the variety of life for which biological evolution is responsible. But anyone who’s already arrived at atheism has probably figured out for themselves that asking how God came about, if everything that exists must have been created, is something to which no believer has yet come up with a satisfactory answer.

The existence of complexity in life is a more pressing concern, which a lot of religious folk herald as proof of deliberate intent and a divine plan. The fact that we have a scientific model, painstakingly constructed and refined over decades, and which is about as solid as any other single aspect of human understanding, is something every atheist would do well to understand. And it’s not “just” a theory.

Well, that’s a start, anyway. I was tempted to do another bit on “A lot of religious people really don’t understand what atheism is”, but that’s something else that most atheists will find out pretty quickly without needing to be told. Anything important you think I’ve missed?

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PZ Myers recently gave some sensitive, measured, and wise advice to a young religious girl.

This maniac must be stopped.

That might be going a bit far, but Ken Ham’s not happy with him. Ken is a prominent creationist, and blogged about a nine-year-old girl called Emma, who’d got in touch with Ken to tell him about a conversation she’d had.

Ken advises people, when confronted by cocky scientists or arrogant atheists who claim to know what happened millions or billions of years in the past, to ask if they were there to see it happen. Like the formation of moon rock, or the evolution of life. Did anyone see it happening?

PZ explained to Emma – in the kind and reasonable tones of, basically, a well-meaning teacher speaking to a child – why this isn’t really such a good question to ask. Questions in general are good, and he gave her kudos for speaking up, but asking whether a scientist was around to watch moon rock being formed several billion years ago probably won’t teach you very much. Obviously she wasn’t there.

But the scientists aren’t saying “I know this is how this moon rock formed billions of years ago because I was there to see it happen”. Even creationists don’t think scientists are that crazy. But then where did these scientists get their crazy ideas from?

Well, how about asking them that? When they make some declaration about evolution or ancient moon rock, ask them something you actually don’t know the answer to: How do you know? Now that is almost always a good question to ask.

To see why, imagine the situations were reversed, and a scientist was asking someone like Emma about Jesus. Emma could probably tell them quite fluently what she knows about God sending his son to Earth to save mankind. If the scientist then asked, “Were you there?”, what would Emma say to that?

She wasn’t there when Jesus lived, obviously. But she’s never claimed to be, and it would be a bit of a dead-end question. Whereas, if the scientists asked how Emma knows any of this stuff about Jesus, then she can point to the Bible where it’s all laid out. And now we’d be getting somewhere; now both parties have a better understanding of where the other is coming from.

PZ’s hypothetical open letter was thorough and well targeted. He also specifically stated that he had no intention of trying to send it to a child he doesn’t know who had solicited no such correspondence.

Ken Ham got to hear about PZ’s response, though, and by the time it reached his ears second- or third-hand and became further mangled by his own dissonance-laden brain, the headline became: ATHEISTS ATTACK.

First of all, if you can find anything in PZ’s post that can be called an attack against this kid, then maybe you can next turn your supernatural detective skills to the task of finding the Higgs boson and save CERN some trouble.

Secondly, the agglomeration of deliberate wilful ignorance in Ken Ham’s follow-up post is staggering. He doesn’t link to PZ’s post, and doesn’t seem to have read it. The word “apparently” features multiple times, and it’s clear from his mischaracterisation that he either hasn’t bothered to read it and thus has no idea what he’s talking about, or he’s an outright liar.

Emma’s mother fares no better. Judging by the words Ken quotes, she’s quite bewildered as to why so much anger and energy is being put into calling her foolish and “attacking the enemy”. By atheists who would very happily and gently explain everything that puzzles her, if she simply cared to read anything other than the Bible. But no.

Sigh.

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I eventually closed this thread after 54 comments, deciding that the circular inanity was becoming tiresome and its protagonist was never going to be reasoned with.

In retrospect, I kinda wish I hadn’t done that. Nobody was being that obnoxious, and the stupid really was funny. I’d vacillated on whether to get involved myself, but eventually there was just so much fantastic material provided by the one resident Christian nut, I couldn’t stay out of it completely.

Here are some of the highlights, with my commentary. If anyone wants to restart the discussion here, I promise not to cut it off this time unless things become unacceptably abusive.


People who have same sex attraction are not a problem, it’s their disordered actions that are. Homosexual sex is not natural because it doesn’t exist for any reason. Otherwise you could just have sex with a hole in the ground.

First off, it’s entirely natural. It just is.

Secondly, “it doesn’t exist for any reason” is apparently now enough to deem something morally impermissible. Given that “to create a new human being” is the only reason David seems interested in, this renders almost the entirety of human endeavour not only pointless, but downright evil.

Of course, if you don’t want to write off all art, music, and literature as forbidden activities, you could note that they serve the purpose of enriching the soul, broadening the mind, diverting the spirit, and bringing joy and delight and wonder and fulfilment to our interactions with our fellow humans.

But then, if you do that, gay relationships would seem to serve the purpose for some people too.

David’s approach is utterly illiberal and oppressive. He has no complaint against this activity except a whine of “Do you have to?” and thinks this justifies homophobic discrimination.

To hell with that. Yes, you could just have sex with a hole in the ground. You really could.

Let me say this emphatically to everyone reading right now: If you want to have sex with a hole in the ground, never let go of your dream.


For what it’s worth, most Christians do not say that something can’t be true because it’s not in the Bible, so that’s a straw man arguement.

No, it’s not.

Almost one in three Americans believe that the Bible is the “actual word of God, to be taken literally”. That’s a significant chunk of the population. It’s not what every Christian believes, but I never said that it was.

The poem, as apparently David didn’t figure out, was about the different circumstances under which atheists might encounter religious belief, and the different levels of antipathy with which to respond. There are different theists described, in different situations, some largely harmless and some meriting serious resistance. It never claimed to be an a depiction of every single person who calls themselves a Christian.

So, David needs to brush up on his logical fallacies. A straw man argument isn’t named that because most people aren’t made of straw. It’s because nobody is made even slightly of straw.


[E]ven a married couple using either the pill or barrier contraception is engaging in sinful activity… [G]ay people are called to be celibate. Some “straight” people are, too.

“Called” is a cosy way of saying God will burn you if you don’t repress the urges he gave you and deny yourself the chance of finding love because of his arbitrary rules.


And for the record, I believe evolution, but not Darwinism.

I am genuinely curious what version of evolution David thinks he believes in.

Does he think it’s credible and scientific that the Biblical account of creation is a myth, and life on Earth developed slowly over billions of years… but it had to be guided by the Christian god, and any attempt to deny this is dogmatic anti-religious fundamentalism?

He never actually explains. He repeatedly claims that creationism and evolution can be compatible, so he’s clearly not using words the way I’m used to them being used. He suggests the existence of “more correct evolution hypotheses”, but gives nothing to explain why these are now rejected in favour of the current theory by a virtually unanimous consensus of experts, or how he’s reached the conclusion that all these experts are wrong. Or what the entire scientific community would have to gain by pushing Darwinism as some sort of grand deceit.

Darwin had to change the rules of science in order to fashion his theory. He changed the rules of scientific proof.

No, he didn’t. I’m not even sure I know what this means, but the theory of evolution including processes of Darwinian natural selection is accepted by the same criteria of scientific evidence as any other solidly established model of reality.


It’s our duty when teaching others to give both sides of the argument. You folks want to exclude half of the subject.

Half?

Hahahahahahahahahahaha.

Here’s a list of creation myths. Please to be explaining why yours is the one religious opinion that should be considered on equal footing with the entire modern scientific study of biology, unlike all of the others.

Why does the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster not deserve equal time to be put forward in science classes?

Both sides!!


Deists = people who believe in a God. I can show you more that the founding fathers were Christian in both upbringing and independent thought.

Actually, “theists” are people who believe in a god/God. Deism is more specific, and generally implies that, while some supreme being is believed to have been necessary for the creation of the cosmos, said being remains entirely uninvolved in human affairs, and has essentially abandoned the whole business immediately after setting things in motion.

This is most likely the belief held by most of the Founding Fathers of the United States. However they may have been brought up, there is no mention of Jesus, Christianity, God, or the Bible anywhere in the Constitution. They could easily have written numerous endorsements of Christianity into the text, if the people establishing the country had had any intention for it to be a “Christian nation” whatsoever.

In fact, they went out of their way to do the exact opposite. As you can tell from Thomas Jefferson’s precise words on this matter, or the many times he made his feelings about religion and its role in government abundantly clear.

I don’t know why I’m spending so much time on 18th century American politics, though. Moving on.


By the way, there is no evidence for gay people…

I’ll just leave this here.


Priests and clergy give up their sexuality to God in order to serve him better.

Yeah, how’s that working out for them?


But let’s look at homosexual sex from an evolutionary point of view. Sex is meant to further along a species. So, while homosexual sex may happen, it is species ending if it is the majority.

I know that if a species spends all it’s time practicing recreational sex which doesn’t produce offspring, the species will die.

First, saying that gay sex is evil because it’s not evolutionarily helpful is like saying that star jumps are an immoral affront to the law of gravity.

Second, I know spending all our time recreationally screwing each other’s brains out sounds like fun, but nobody has suggested we try that. You’re letting your imagination run away with you again, David, and the places it’s going are pretty gay.

David decries the catastrophic flaw that homosexuality is not “procreative”, but he can’t seem to decide what reason best justifies this. Sometimes it’s because God says so. Sometimes it’s because it could wipe out the species if everyone decided to do it all the time (which they’re not). Sometimes it’s… something to do with Nancy Pelosi? Wait, I think I’m flashing back to an earlier discussion.

Anyway, you know what’s just as unlikely to be procreative as gay sex? Abstinence.

I’ve never had any children, and yet my body has produced just as many sperm cells – potential humans all – as if I’d been getting picked up in gay bars every Saturday night for the past five years.

So what’s the problem with homosexuality? How does it take anything away from your own hetero concerns that you seem so keen to shove our faces in? Are the gays somehow using up all the sex, and you’re worried there won’t be enough left for when you want to get down to some hot, steamy baby-makin’?


As for your belief, or lack of belief, why should God jump through hoops for you? He already suffered and died for you. If that’s not enough, I don’t know what is.

Hey, David. I got a deal for you. You eat this spider and I’ll give you a million bucks.

C’mon, think of what you could do with a million bucks! It might be an unbearably horrible sensation while you’re doing it, but think of the reward you’ll definitely get afterward!

What’s that? You want to see the money before you’ll do it? Geeze, how ungrateful is that? I’ve already gone to the trouble of making a huge cash withdrawal and packing a suitcase full of my own hard-earned money. It’s in my car, you can have it once you’ve eaten this spider. How many hoops do I have to jump through for you, man?

I should try a different tack as well, since sarcasm didn’t seem to work too well on him the first few times it was tried.

The reason God ought to “jump through hoops” for me, David, is that he’s demanding that I surrender every aspect of my life to him. At least, that’s what his supporters claim. It’s not unreasonable for some kind of evidence that the deal’s legit before I start shunning gays, stoning children to death, and give up my regular Friday night ass-coveting session.


God didn’t want robots, or zombies, who would do everything he wanted. God realized that love without free will is slavery. He freely gave man free will.

God didn’t want his creations to be happy. He wanted them to fall prey to every mistake they could possibly be led into by the primitive urges he’d given them. Because it’s just more fun that way.

And you say this guy isn’t a sadist?


And this last one’s a real doozy.

God now uses the evil in the world to help those who try to love him. Catastrophe tends to bring people together to work to dig out of said catastrophe. Look at what happened in America after 9/11. We actually worked together for a time. That’s not to say God willed 9/11. But He took the evil action and made it into a postive.

Yeah.

I know I said not to be abusive here, but… can I make an exception when it’s so patently merited?

What David’s saying is that God could have prevented the suffering that ensued after this devastating attack, but he didn’t. It happened anyway, in spite of the wishes of our omnipotent loving creator. But although he could have stopped it, it was mankind’s fault for choosing to exercise our free will in such a damaging way.

So God gets let off the hook for tearing thousands of families apart. But he also gets the credit for all the work done in the aftermath, by countless incalculably brave people, who formed communities and support groups and tried to pull things together following such a tragedy. We’re expected to be grateful to him, for the nuggets of solace and comfort we find in each other’s company, after he allows us to suffer unbearably.

This is rationalisation of a blind ideology at its most evil.


So that’s the state of play, folks. If it ends up kicking off again, be nice to each other. Your points may seem more credible if not prefaced by straight-forward insults. And while he wasn’t above responding in kind, it wasn’t David who launched the first volley of “You’re an idiot” last time. Be nice.

And have fun!

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