Sunday, December 25, 2011

'Tis the Season

Ah, Christmas. A time to give celebrate friends and family, love and generosity... and uh... something else. What was it again? Oh, I know! It's the perfect time to reflect upon the birth of Jesus—specifically, the remarkable number of problems with his birth narratives. In fact, there are so many that I'll only be giving a brief overview rather than going through them in detail.

The Contradictions
To any unbiased observer reading Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 1:26-2:40, it's patently obvious that they're two completely different, incompatible stories of Jesus' birth. Here's a summary of the two versions:

Leaving aside the fact that the stories differ on almost every point, there are basically two direct contradictions. First, Matthew strongly implies that Mary and Joseph's hometown was Bethlehem, while Luke states that it was Nazareth. I went into this problem in more detail in a previous post. Second, Luke has them going directly from Bethlehem to Nazareth, while Matthew has Jesus' family fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt. has more on this.

The Prophecies
The birth narratives deal with quite a few alleged prophecies of Jesus. The first is Micah 5:2, which predicts that a savior would come from Bethlehem. Since Jesus was thought to have grown up in Nazareth, Matthew and Luke came up with different, conflicting ways to resolve this difficulty. But Micah 5:2 is referring to a tribe, not a town, and said savior was also supposed to defeat the Assyrians.

The birth narratives feature a virgin birth due to a misinterpretation of Isaiah 7:14, which appears to say someone will be born of a virgin. But the word translated "virgin" is more likely to mean "young woman," and the prophecy was already supposed to be fulfilled by Isaiah 8:3-4. The same verse also prophesies that "they shall call his name Immanuel," but there's no indication that Jesus was ever actually called by that name.

The gospel of Matthew is particularly big on attempting to fulfill prophecies. Matthew 2:23 says that Jesus' upbringing in Nazareth fulfills a prophecy saying "he shall be called a Nazarene," but no such prophecy appears anywhere in the Old Testament. Matthew 2:15 explains the flight to Egypt as a fulfillment of Hosea 11, which says, "Out of Egypt I called my Son." Yet looking at the original context, we instead see...
"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my Son. As they called them, so they went from them; they sacrificed to the Baals, and burned incense to carved images."
Not only is it not a prophecy of Jesus, but it's not a prophecy at all.

Culture and History
I want to quickly cover a few more points. First, some argue that Herod's massacre of the Bethlehem newborns didn't happen because it wasn't recorded by the meticulous historian Josephus, who recorded myriad other atrocities of Herod. Apologists reply that Bethlehem was so small that this would have been a minor event that Josephus may not have felt was significant enough to write about. I don't have enough information to conclude who's right one way or the other.

Then there's the Census of Quirinius, which is a massive problem for inerrantists. Here's a summary from Richard Carrier:
The Gospel of Luke claims (2:1-2) that Jesus was born during a census that we know from the historian Josephus took place after Herod the Great died, and after his successor, Archelaus, was deposed. But Matthew claims (2:1-3) that Jesus was born when Herod the Great was still alive--possibly two years before he died (2:7-16). Other elements of their stories also contradict each other. Since Josephus precisely dates the census to 6 A.D. and Herod's death to 4 B.C., and the sequence is indisputable, Luke and Matthew contradict each other.
Finally, there's the Star of Bethlehem, which the Magi follow to Bethlehem. It's described as a real astronomical event—a star that rises in the east just as any star would—yet astronomers have not identified any event that matches its description, and it's unclear how a star could be situated directly above a particular building in a particular town. More importantly, the Magi's interpretation of the star is a form of astrology, which as Adam Lee points out is harshly condemned by the Bible. In fact, the very word "magos" literally means "astrologer." When the author of Matthew has a supposedly demonic power directing the Magi to worship Jesus, it's pretty clear that he's not on the same page as the rest of Christianity.

The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are completely different and contain at least two major direct contradictions. At least four alleged prophecies either are not prophecies at all or are not fulfilled by Jesus. And there are multiple details that conflict with history or even Christianity itself. The birth narratives alone are more than enough to show that the Bible cannot be the inerrant word of God.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Advanced Redditing

I spend way more time on reddit than I probably should—in fact, it's a small part of why I'm posting less at the moment than I have in months past. I wrote previously about r/atheism, the popular subreddit for nonbelievers. Again, while they do plenty of good—I got a massive outpouring of support during my recent "coming out atheist" drama, and they recently raised over $200,000 for Doctors Without Borders in just a few weeks—the content to be found there sometimes gets a bit shallow and repetitive. So here are a few other subreddits that are worthy of some attention from atheists, skeptics and lovers of science.

First, the r/atheism alternatives. While r/AtheistGems is updated only occasionally, it contains valuable nuggets in the form of well-reasoned arguments, YouTube videos and links to other resources. For example, this video of the recently late Christopher Hitchens has him eloquently tearing down the Ten Commandments and constructing them anew, while this thread has abundant links for engaging with Muslims. Then there's r/AtheismBot, which takes r/atheism and weeds out 85% of it (the Facebook posts, rage comics and other fluffy content), leaving the more serious stuff behind.

Another two topics worth looking at are r/freethought and r/skeptic. The former is much like r/atheism, but with a more mature tone and a broader focus that includes more science and politics in addition to religion. This discussion on the exaggerated importance of nationalism in society is a good example. The latter focuses mostly on various forms of pseudoscience including homeopathy, psychics and other products that exploit the credulity of the general public. r/philosophy is stimulating as well—most of it is outside my area of interest, but it can occasionally make me rethink some important issues.

One handy feature is the ability to combine subreddits into one larger multireddit. For example, r/DebateAnAtheist, r/DebateAChristian and r/DebateReligion combine quite well to form an all-purpose religious discussion. It creates a nice mix of conversations, some as challenges to atheists and others as challenges to Christians and other believers. For instance:
There are often more atheists in the conversation than theists, but every now and then I'll find a spark of real debate.

Finally there are the subreddits dedicated to science and education. r/science is a great place to find and discuss science-related news stories. What I particularly like is the fact that sensationalist headlines (a new "cure for cancer" is discovered practically every other week) are quickly picked apart by specialists in the comments section. In r/AskScience, anyone can ask their most pressing science-related questions and have them answered by experts in the field, whether it's how we know what the earth's core is made of or what the specs of a human brain would look like if it were a computer. Finally, in r/ExplainLikeImFive one can get answers to even basic questions explained in a welcoming atmosphere with easily understandable terms.

Reddit is such a vast and diverse place that it can be anything you want it to. It can be shallow entertainment, it can be depraved evil or crushing ignorance. But select the right parts of the site and it can be a genuinely educational and thought-provoking experience.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Church Happenings

One of the perks of being out as an atheist is that I no longer have to attend church every Sunday. Although I didn't usually mention it here—that's what my Twitter account is for—there were always several moments where I couldn't help but cringe. I thought I'd mention a few such moments from weeks past.

Recently one pastor, Phillip, had taken to sharing stories about his atheist neighbors. (When he mentioned that they were atheists, a lady next to me went, "Whoa!"—as if he were describing his close encounter with a great white shark.) He portrayed them as deeply angry people who become enraged at any mention of Christianity. He joked that his neighbor's wizard Halloween costume looked a lot like Moses, and the neighbor was deeply offended. The congregation cheered in delight, as though celebrating some small victory over "the enemy." Even if Phillip's depiction was completely accurate, presenting it on its own was irresponsible: since most of these people know little about atheism, many will undoubtedly use these stories to make judgements about atheists as a whole. Thanks to situations like these, it's no wonder that we rank among the most disliked and distrusted minority groups in America.

Phillip also made references to aerial photos of Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat and gilded chariot wheels found in the Red Sea from the Egyptians drowning during the Exodus. The former is a confirmed hoax, and the latter is highly suspect to say the least. The wheel claims originate from amateur archaeologist Ron Wyatt, who also claims to have found the Ark of the Covenant, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the original sites of Sodom, Gomorrah and the tower of Babel. Even the cripplingly biased creationist organization Answers in Genesis has called Wyatt's claims "fraudulent." Curiously, no evidence has been presented for the existence of the chariot wheel beyond a few blurry photos.

The pictured object looks suspiciously modern, and despite supposedly being made of gold, it doesn't seem to have been buried at all over what would amount to roughly 3,500 years. Meanwhile, the Egyptians themselves, who are known to archaeologists as meticulous record-keepers, made reference neither to owning 2 million Hebrew slaves nor to letting them escape, which would surely have been one of the most significant events in their multi-thousand-year history.

Pastor Mike is an even worse offender. A few months ago he demonstrated his deep understanding of evolution by calling it a "primordial jelly oozing monkey business theory." Another time, while reading Mark 16, he repeatedly went out of his way to emphasize how incredibly reliable the Bible is. Yet he didn't even mention what must undoubtedly have been the reason for this tangent: since Mark 16 is absent from the earliest manuscripts and fits poorly with the preceding text, it's widely regarded as a forgery. It's as though he wanted to reassure his congregants, but thought their faith was so fragile that he didn't dare even tell them that this opposing viewpoint exists at all.

Mike also mentioned that the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote about Jesus. I wasn't particularly shocked when he didn't mention that scholars consider much or all of the Testimonium Flavianum to have been inserted later by Christians—that's to be expected from a fundamentalist preacher. My jaw only dropped when he said that Josephus became a Christian based on the evidence of Jesus, which to my knowledge not even conservative scholars believe. I don't think he was being intentionally deceptive, but it boggles my mind that a pastor can stand in front of a thousand people and demonstrate such ignorance of something so basic to early Christianity.

So it shouldn't be too surprising that I'm glad to be largely finished with church attendance. But then again, I won't mind coming back every now and then, if only to get a reminder of what I no longer have to endure.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Infographic Interlude

When it comes to getting a point across, a single chart can sometimes be just as effective as a whole essay. Below are five examples that provide insightful criticism toward some aspect of religion.

Some fundamentalist Christians insist that laws in America have their basis in the Ten Commandments, and even that the ancient tablets should be placed in prominent positions in our nation's courthouses. Well, are American laws based on the Commandments? Absolutely not, and I made a handy chart to illustrate this:

In fact, not only does our justice system disregard most of these restrictions (and rightly so), but the first four commandments would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The rest of these graphics are made by others. Here's one that deals a devastating blow to the concept of prayer as most Christians understand it:

The solutions to this are to assert that God changes his perfect plan to suit the whims of his followers, or to maintain that prayer is only meant to commune with God and reaffirm what he has already chosen to do. The former seems incompatible with God's omniscience—if that was a better course of action, he should already have planned on taking it—while the latter contradicts what Jesus himself said.

Here's a graphic that explains why it's laughable for the religious right to use the Bible in support of "traditional marriage" in the sense of a loving, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. The Bible is clearly not a useful guide to what types of marriage we should allow, given that it tolerates and even endorses varieties of marriage that we recognize as reprehensible today:

Another simple illustration. It seems awfully convenient that God's demonstrations of power become steadily less impressive the closer we get to modern times (and reliable recording devices):

Finally, here's a beautifully color-coded illustration of the correlations between religiosity and various measures of societal health and quality of life in all 50 states. The pattern is visible with just a glance:

Of course, this doesn't establish that religion causes social problems, but it's still a powerful counterexample to the fundamentalist idea that turning our back on God causes God to turn his back on us, leaving civilizations in chaos. Nonreligious people can and often do create healthy and well-functioning societies.

Whether they're data-rich or just convey ideas in an accessible format, visual demonstrations can get a point across with startling efficiency. Words are powerful tools, but sometimes people will give opposing views only a few seconds of open-mindedness before shutting them out. When interacting with believers, I think that a few easy-to-digest graphics can potentially go a long way.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Debate Begins

At the moment I work thirty hours a week in my dad's office, and as such I go to lunch with him quite often. This has now become the setting for what may turn out to be a long series of informal debates on God and Christianity. The first one was today, and although my dad was quite determined—he actually took a note card with him—the tone was friendly enough. We went through a whole flurry of topics ranging from prophecy to cosmology, so I have a feeling we'll be retreading the same ground in more detail later on.

The first thing we did was go back over the definitions of atheism and agnosticism. It's admittedly a somewhat difficult concept to grasp at first, as is the difference between "I believe there is no God" and "I lack belief in God." The distinction ultimately lies in the idea of burden of proof: it's the theist who's making a claim that something exists, and the atheist who's holding out for sufficient evidence of that claim. Eventually I explained it using a very simple analogy: Imagine a thermometer with a notch two-thirds of the way up labeled "God exists." For the atheist, the fluid in the thermometer (the evidence for the claim) has not reached that notch (the threshold for rational belief). That seemed to work well, so I'll probably be using that comparison in the future.

We also talked at length about miracles. He described an event a few decades ago in which, when driving at night, he changed lanes on a whim—just in time to avoid a parked car that he hadn't seen. He suggested (while not putting too much stock in it himself) that this could have been divine intervention. I pointed out that we tend to disproportionately remember extraordinary events, and introduced him to Littlewood's law—the idea that given the sheer number of small events that take place in our lives, we should expect "miracles" at a rate of roughly once a month. I didn't go into the general unreliability of memory; I'll save that for another time.

He also asked about spontaneous remission of cancer following prayer, to which I pointed out that such remission occasionally takes place whether or not people are praying. He'd heard about some crying Catholic statues as well. In response I brought up the Hindu milk miracle: In 1995, hundreds of believers in India and abroad witnessed statues of Ganesha "drink" milk that was fed to them with a spoon. Neither of us believe in a miracle that took place in modern times, with countless verifiable eyewitnesses and even video evidence, so it's only natural not to believe in lesser miracles either.

Another back-and-forth:
You may not be able to prove God, but you can't prove love exists, either, even if you can measure the chemicals.
—Love is by definition a feeling, so the very experience of love shows that it exists.
But couldn't the same be said of God?
—No, because God is supposed to be an autonomous agent who acts independently of our subjective experience.
There were a grab bag of other subjects. He asked about Old Testament prophecies predicting details of Jesus' life. I responded that some details were probably invented by the gospel writers after the fact, and some of the "prophecies" weren't even meant to be prophecies in the first place. He was under the impression that the eye couldn't have evolved, when in fact we have a detailed understanding of how it could have come about. He also found it absurd that matter could have created itself. I haven't studied the details, I said, but we don't really know what happened before the big bang. It may be that matter has always existed, or that it's not even useful to talk about a "before" in the traditional sense (like asking what's north of the North Pole).

The whole discussion was quite genial, and although I don't know that my dad got any nearer to my position, I think it was a success. He even said that in a strange way, these discussions brought us closer together, and that's more than I ever could have hoped for.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Breaking the News

Man, life can get complicated, can't it? Here's the short version of what happened in the past 24 hours: I almost threw up, Neil finally let up on the ultimatum, and I still went ahead and came out to my parents as an atheist.

Like I said, life can get complicated.

Before I continue, I should say a few things about Neil. I think what he planned to do was very wrong. I think much of what he said to me was also very wrong. But from my continued messages with him, I can tell that he really was acting out of concern for my parents, however misguided the response may have been. He apologized for what he said to me, and he didn't force me to go through with telling my parents. Again, to be clear: My decision to tell my parents was mine alone. You can blame him for other things, but not for that.

Now then, on to what happened.

Yesterday, before Neil relented, I called my sister and asked her to come home from college (just a 10-minute drive) to be there for me when I told my parents. She readily agreed. I came home from work, went to tennis practice, watched Super 8 with my parents. I was crying a little, but I didn't let them see it. Twice that evening I nearly threw up from the stress. I stood retching over the toilet bowl but managed to restrain myself. My mom came in once and asked what was wrong.

I told her it was a long story.

This morning, about eight hours away from when I had planned to tell them, I got the message from Neil: I was safe. My emotions were shot. I was happy, shocked, relieved.

But there was another feeling mixed in there as well: something like dread. I realized that if I just let it go, I would have to experience all of this twice. I planned on breaking the news at some point no matter what, so if I continued to keep this a secret, I would have to go through these sickening pangs of anxiety all over again. And despite the potential consequences, I really, genuinely didn't like keeping this from them. I decided, what the hell, I've come this far. So I battled nerves and nausea for a few more hours, waiting for the right moment, and finally forced myself to through with it.

It went really well. Certainly better than I expected. We keep models of the people close to us in our heads, and this past year I must have mentally simulated a hundred "coming out atheist" conversations with my parents, with results ranging from blissful acceptance to angry shouting matches. But since I've never been in any serious trouble with them or confessed any big, damaging secrets, I didn't really have a baseline that I could use to gauge how they would truly react. I hoped for the best but feared the worst—which, since I'm not financially independent, could have been pretty bad. Over the years I had heard my dad react to atheism with hostility and contempt, so what if he took the same approach towards me and my own conclusions? And my mom can be emotionally fragile even in relatively ordinary situations, so for all I knew she could have been mourning for days on end. But people are hard to predict, and I've never been happier in my life to have predicted wrong.

I sat them down at the kitchen table, and after several stops and starts, I told them that last year I had started questioning Christianity, that I had spent a long time reading and thinking carefully about my beliefs. Finally I told them outright that I didn't believe in God. There was no mention of Neil or anything besides my unbelief and how I came to it—I wanted the focus to be on my personal journey of faith and doubt, and I just didn't feel like overcomplicating things.

I could see tears well up in my mom's eyes, although my dad remained stoically calm. Since I hadn't mentioned the "A" word yet, that was naturally the first thing that came up. I transitioned, a bit awkwardly, into explaining the technical definitions of atheism (lack of belief in gods) and agnosticism (lack of knowledge about the existence of gods), and that I classify myself as an agnostic atheist. I don't know if it really sank in, but no conflict came of it, and that's good enough for me.

It was remarkable to see the dichotomy in their responses, their ways of lightly questioning my decision. My mom's emphasis was squarely on faith. She asked me if I had prayed about my loss of faith (I did, in the beginning). She told me that we shouldn't be proving or disproving God, but rather listening as he speaks to our hearts. My dad's approach was focused totally on logical argument. He actually produced rudimentary versions of both the cosmological argument and Pascal's wager, though he wasn't familiar with them in a formal, rigorous sense. There was a little back-and-forth on those subjects, but before things got too far I told him we should save it for another time.

They told me they would pray for me, which I said I appreciated—even though I don't think it'll accomplish anything, it's still a sign of affection. They recommended Lee Strobel's books, to which I said I'd already read one and part of another. They asked me to still come to church now and then, which I agreed to, though I told them it wasn't likely to change my mind. And that was that.

Of course, there's still a long road ahead. There will be some tense moments, some heated discussions, and quite possibly even some arguments, but I'll do my best not to let those turn into rifts that drive us apart. I'm truly glad not just that I managed to tell them, but that I was able to do it on my own terms.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Ultimatum

Note: This post has gotten really popular since someone posted it to Reddit and it hit the front page of r/atheism. I wasn't expecting such a massive response, but I really appreciate all the support. I should note up front that Neil has since apologized for the combative tone he took in this exchange, although he's still set on making me go through with this. Also, this should go without saying, but please don't post threats or anything that vein; that's not helpful. Thanks so much. (Edit: Follow-up post here.)

Warning: drama ahead.
Neil is a Christian who preaches at university campuses, including UCSD. By sheer coincidence, he's also an old friend of my parents—not a particularly close one, but he posts on my mom's Facebook wall now and then. Several months ago, while I was still in college, he happened to find out that I was an atheist. I asked him not to tell my parents—this is a very personal decision that is mine alone to make—and he agreed. He then began asking at regular intervals whether I had told my parents yet, and finally a couple of days ago he decided to take matters into his own hands. He told me that if I didn't tell my parents within the next week, he would call and tell them himself.

Now, let me first say that I take no pleasure in keeping my unbelief a secret from my parents. I do so only because although I have a wonderful relationship with them, I have no idea how they will react, and given that I live under the same roof with them, things could get hostile if those reactions are especially bad. I think Neil's concern is sincere, but heavily misguided. He apparently believes he is entitled to destroy my freedom to reveal my unbelief on my own terms—essentially, to force me into coming out as an atheist.

Here is the conversation I've been having with him over the past day or so, starting with his initial notice:
I have been bothered in my concious about not speaking to your mom and dad about your situation. I think you are really doing them a disservice. I am sure your parents love you and will listen to you with an open mind. To continue to live a lie is not a good thing for any of you.
I feel I must speak to them so I am giving you advanced notice of this. In about a week I will call them to discuss this situation with them because I care about them as my friends. We used to be close when I was in the R.E. business and I am very fond of both of them.
Please speak to them openly or I will have to. I hope you understand.
Is this you blog by the way?
Thanks, Neil
It was difficult to react calmly and politely in light of the friendly warning that he's about to potentially rip my life apart. Nonetheless, I think I managed it in my response:
I'm sympathetic to your situation. I get that you don't like having to keep a secret.
But I feel you need to fully understand my situation as well. I have a great relationship with my parents, unstrained by any sort of ill feelings, and even in the best-case scenario things would get very awkward between us.
It's not like I enjoy keeping this a secret. I think all the time about how I'm going to tell them. I've even made tentative plans a couple of times, which I've later backed out of, but I was still fully expecting to tell them in the not-too-distant future.
This is a deeply personal matter, and when and how I tell them should be my choice to make. I would ask that you stay out of it. If you can't bring yourself to do so, then I guess I don't have any choice but to tell them before you call. If that's really what you're going to force me to do, I understand that you'd be acting out of concern, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't resent you for it.
And yes, that is my blog.
Here's Neil's rather lengthy (and preachy) second message:
Your response convinces me that this is the right thing for me to do. Of course you won't agree with that, but I must do what I think is best for you and your parents.
It is one thing for a young person to go to "Christian" school and see no real Christianity among the students and then to start to doubt their faith. That is a normal outcome and is understandable considering their is very little real faith exhibited in these so-called "Christian" schools. Many kids, tolerate it for awhile, and will pretend they still believe in Christ so they can keep the peace at home and still enjoy the blessings of family fellowship and the monetary blessings that go along with it. For a person to ask questions, and to really struggle with their faith under these circumstances is quite normal.
However, you have crossed over and now have become an evangelist for the other side. Sad to say, but that is reality and I don't apologize for my bluntness. You see, now you are no longer questioning your faith but now you are being used to destroy other's faith in Christ or at least to plant seeds of doubt in their hearts. This is not harmless skepticism but outright declared war against God and His people.
You have obviously made your choice about your faith but you still want to maintain your shroud of secrecy and enjoy the benefits of a good relationship with your parents and not reap any of the consequences of becoming an atheist. This is very selfish Tim. You may think you are sparing your parents from being upset by not being truthful with them but is this how your dad and mom raised you? Gary was always honest in his real estate dealings as I remember and I know he would not want his only son to be living a lie and not being truthful with him and your mom.
I know you do not fully understand the consequences of making such a decision to become a mocker of God and of His followers, but the consequences are severe indeed. It is one thing to question and eventually abandon one's faith. But you have gone way past that now and are bent on hurting others with your writings. This is not only wrong, but evil. You think you will find relief from your inner guilt by bashing Christianity and God but you won't find lasting peace in this. The Bible is very clear about this:
Galations 6:7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. 8 For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.
I don't blame you at all for having doubts about Christianity. As I said to you previously, you were never born again, or born from above if that is the term you prefer, so it is impossible for you to really know God personally. Because you do not know God personally, you went searching, but you end up reading all this atheist garbage and your think it stimulates you and makes you believe these people are "intelligent" and "free thinkers". God calls them fools.
Why so? Because in their heart they know God is real but they bypass their heart and rely on logic. Logic that is not based upon real truth but upon man's truth and therefore you become deceived into thinking they are correct with their assumptions and accusations.
So you may find some relief from your inner turmoil for a time by throwing God and His Word under the bus. You obviously spend a whole lot of time reading what these fools think is real knowledge and now you have joined their ranks and are helping to hurt others who may be struggling with their faith.
From your blog:"Relax. Let it go. Realize that your mental acrobatics are futile, and accept that the Bible is not a reliable record of Jesus' life—or of most other things, for that matter. It may be upsetting at first, but once you've unchained yourself from this ancient book for a while, you'll probably feel a lot better. At least, I do."
Tim, you couldn't be more wrong. Billions of people over thousands of years have trusted the Holy Scriptures and found true faith in Christ and have experienced the life changing power of the gospel. I was a lost atheist/agnostic who was only living for money and the things of this world and in a moment, I was changed forever by the power of God's Spirit. Ask your dad and mom and they will tell you how my life changed dramatically.
The sad fact is you have already made your choice to mock God, His Word and His followers. You are on a slippery slope that will lead you to hell and for this reason alone it is necessary that I share this with your parents. Resent me if you like, but I must do what I think is best for all of you. I have nothing to gain by doing this but I feel obligated because of my respect for your dad and mom.
Sincerely, Neil
Since I realized I probably wouldn't get him to change his mind, my second response was short:
That was quite a change in tone, Neil. In a blink of an eye, you went from polite and concerned to essentially calling me a selfish fool and my actions evil. I would have liked to be friends with you, but that will be extremely difficult now that you've berated my unbelief and forced yourself into a very personal family matter.
You said you would give me a week. That's fine. I'll break the news before then.
Here's his third message. Because I responded to some of his points individually, my response will be interlaced with his, in green.
Yes the change in tone is because after reading your secret blog, I can see that you are in no way questioning your faith, as you led me to believe, but are instead dead set against God and now delight in mocking Him and His people.
What do you mean by this? I never said I was "questioning my faith." I told you outright that I was an atheist; how can I be "questioning my faith" if I have no faith? If by this you mean that I'm not willing to consider believing given the evidence, you're mistaken. I may use a bit of levity on my blog now and then, but that doesn't preclude being willing to entertain opposing viewpoints.
You say " I wanted to be your friend" but since I have met you, you have never asked me a single question at all but instead you were only concerned in me keeping your secret.
I'm a shy person by nature, Neil. Combine that with the fact that you've done virtually nothing but tell me I'm lost and confused and a sinner and asking me when I'm going to talk to my parents, and I don't think it's too surprising that I didn't go out of my way to chat about the weather with you. I would have liked to be friends with you at some point, but that point would have been well after those comments had ceased.
Time to come out of the closet and face the music Tim. You want to mock Christians and yet allow your parents to believe all is well?
The truth is Tim your spiritual understanding is very immature and your writings reflect that.
Exodus 21:20-21, Neil. By all means, tell me all about how my spiritual understanding isn't "mature" enough to grasp God's wisdom in allowing the Israelites to beat their slaves to the point of death.
For example, you talk about a study where prayer is tested to see if it helps people who are sick. They come to the conclusion it doesn't help at all and instead of questioning the results you accept and promote it as truth.
You totally discount the fact that people pray to their own "god" in many different ways. That some may be true believers while others are merely religious people who do not know the One, True God at all. You think God is going to allow Himself to be put in a test tube for their study? Please, think a little Tim.
Do you really think I haven't considered this argument? It's an unparsimonious, unfalsifiable cop-out. You could pray to an inanimate object and get identical results. In fact, you could claim that God was the very embodiment of evil and still justify those results by saying that the evil god is simply laughing at the frustrations of theists trying to prove he exists. You can make your deity consistent with any state of affairs, but that doesn't make your explanations even remotely probable.
God is an awesome mighty God and He will not bow to man in any way. I am saddened that you so easily have been deceived and that you have last what faith you had.
I still think your intentions are good, Neil, but as they say, the road to hell was paved with those. I'd like to maintain a civil level of discourse, but your insulting and condescending attitude is making that increasingly difficult.
By the way, I just talked to my sister about this, and she's agreed to be there for me when I tell them if I want her to. Here are her exact words when I told her what you had chosen to do: 
"Isn't that blackmail or something?" 
I hope that gives you something to think about. 
His fourth message, in which he ignores all but a few words of my response:
Blackmail? Just what am I gaining in return? I have nothing to gain but to know that I am doing my best to help you and your family.
I know you don't see it this way but that is the truth.
Arrogant? Condescending? Isn't it rather your atheistic beliefs that are supremely arrogant?
You belittle people who have faith in Christ yet you can't even explain away the very first verse in the Bible?
Where did all the matter originate from Tim? What rational reason can you give for the existence of the universe ?
And my final response:
Neil, blackmail is defined as "the use of threats or the manipulation of someone's feelings to force them to do something"—no personal gain required.
Other than that, I'm not getting into this, tempting though it is. Your questions have been answered by various atheists a hundred times over—whether those answers are to your satisfaction is not my concern. Apparently nothing I say will change your opinion on anything we've discussed, so I see no reason to continue.
I'll let you know when I've told my parents. It will be within the next 7 days.
I'm still not sure how I'm going to tell them. There's a perfectly fair chance that not too much will come of it other than some initial distress and later awkwardness, but those more serious potential consequences are looming in the back of my mind. I called my sister last night, and she's agreed to be there to support me if I want her to. And yes, she really did call this blackmail right out of the gate. I always knew she was a smart one.

Edit: I'm hoping to sit them down and talk with them tomorrow afternoon. My sister will be there if I need her.

Edit 2: This morning Neil told me (in the comments below) that he wouldn't force me to go through with telling my parents. I haven't decided for sure, but I'm thinking about doing it anyway. I've come this far, and I don't feel like going through all this emotional turmoil again.

Edit 3: The follow-up to this post is here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Keeping an Open Mind

This one may be a little too open.
The challenging task of the skeptic is to maintain a careful balance between rejecting claims with insufficient evidence, but accepting even the most extraordinary claims once the standard of evidence is met. In other words, to adhere to the age-old maxim:
Keep your mind open, but not so open that your brain falls out.
When I talked about my atheism with my sister, she was very accepting but rightly insisted that I continue to be open to opposing views. But things get tricky when applying this principle of openness to claims as extraordinary as "God exists" (or even more so, "Christianity is true"). It requires me to ask myself, "What evidence would convince me that God exists?"

When the reverse question is applied to theists, the results are telling to say the least. For most believers—sometimes even by their own admission—there is no possible state of affairs, no logical argument, nothing that would convince them to stop believing. Adam Lee of Ebon Musings challenged theists to describe some circumstance that would cause them to become atheists. In ten years, only six people have taken up his challenge, and their requirements for becoming atheists are usually vague, confused or completely unreasonable—for example, demanding proof that all miracle claims are false, when of course the burden is on theists to show that they're legitimate.

In the same essay, Adam outlines a number of circumstances that would cause him to believe in God or convert to a specific religion. Here's the basic summary:
  • Verified, specific prophecies that couldn't have been contrived.
  • Scientific knowledge in holy books that wasn't available at the time.
  • Miraculous occurrences, especially if brought about through prayer.
  • Any direct manifestation of the divine.
  • Aliens who believed in the exact same religion.
It's an interesting list of very specific possibilities, all of which would be well within the abilities of an omnipotent being. However, I can't help but think that this entire approach is problematic. If God came down from heaven in a flash of light and appeared before me, I sincerely hope that the first thing I would do is seek professional help. For the five criteria above, some combination of coincidence (in the case of the first three) and insanity seem like a better explanation than some uberbeing that defies everything we know about the universe. Extraterrestrials and Nick Bostrom's simulation hypothesis are other unlikely but viable possibilities.

This leaves me in a tough position. To say that nothing would convince me of the existence of God strikes me as incredibly close-minded. And of course, it would leave my lack of belief in gods unfalsifiable: if gods do exist, I would have no way of correcting my mistake.

Maybe the right approach is to say that the proposition "God exists" was once falsifiable, but is no longer. If I'd been born into a world in which spirits manifested themselves regularly, people constantly predicted the future with pinpoint accuracy, lightning crashed down from heaven to smite unbelievers on a daily basis, then God and the supernatural would be an ordinary part of life. But instead, I live in a world where things always behave according to physical laws, where every seemingly paranormal phenomenon that's thoroughly tested either disappears or turns out to be explainable by natural means, where visions and religious experiences have neurological origins. I didn't have to be born into a world where everything happens just as we would expect it to if no gods existed—but I was.

Maybe the hypothesis "God exists" has already been tested, and has been found to be so wildly inconsistent with the data as to be completely unsalvageable.

I don't know. I honestly don't want it to be. I don't want any conclusion to lie entirely beyond my grasp.

Still, while I'm not really sure what would convince me that God exists, there are likely to be some things out there that would. If God appeared to me and I sought a psychiatrist who declared me sane, I could be imagining that as well, but at a certain point it would probably be simpler to assume my experiences were real rather than an increasingly elaborate hallucination.

Then there are the unknowns: there may be some concept floating out there in the vast sea of ideaspace that could change my whole outlook towards how the world works, or some a priori argument with logic so straightforward that I would be compelled to accept it. I'm also far from perfectly rational, so there are probably some circumstances that would convince me even if they shouldn't. Finally, there's the fact that an omniscient, all-good God would know what evidence would be sufficient for me and could provide it just as he has for theists. One could say that it's his job to convince me, not mine.

In any case, I'll continue to be as open-minded as I can—but I'll always be ready to catch my brain if it starts to fall.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What Do You Mean By That?

It's been said that the best way to fluster a religious person who's talking about their doctrines is to simply ask, "What do you mean by that?" In many cases there can only be two types of responses: either the believer will restate their point in a way that doesn't actually clarify the meaning... or, when pressed, they may be forced to admit that they don't really know what they mean. It's just something they've heard and read about, and took as truth simply because of its attachment to their belief system.

Take, for example, the idea that Jesus is "the Son of God." What do Christians mean by this? Did the Father have sex with a woman to create him? Well, no. Christians tend to see that as highly blasphemous. They maintain that Mary was impregnated by some supernatural means that's never actually explained, and was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. Okaaay... well, surely the Father created Jesus in some sense, right? Well, no. In fact, Christians are adamant that he was never created. According to the Nicene Creed, the Son was "begotten, not made" and has always existed alongside the Father.

It's not even clear that it makes sense to talk about the Son as inherently male. Sure, the Bible has Jesus temporarily incarnated as a man, but in general, God is supposed to be a perfect spiritual being who transcends such earthly concepts as gender. Or do Christians think Jesus is up in heaven right now as an actual male, sitting at the right hand of the Father complete with an immaterial, spiritual penis?

All right, fine. If Jesus wasn't the product of sex, and has always existed, and isn't male in any meaningful sense, maybe it's just a metaphor of some sort. Calling Jesus "the Son" could mean that he's in some way inferior or subordinate to the Father. Well, no. One might think so after looking at certain biblical passages, but according to the widely accepted Athanasian Creed, the three persons of the trinity are "co-equal" in power and authority. Jesus is supposed to be fully God in every respect. In what sense, then, can Jesus be considered the Son of God? That's for believers to determine.

There are dozens of these little sayings and points of doctrine that are accepted without any reflection from most Christians. What does it mean to say that Jesus is "the Word of God made flesh"? What does it mean for God to be "outside of time"? In what sense can Jesus be considered "fully God and fully human"? How can God be viewed as a single being when he exists in three distinct "persons"? If Jesus "paid our ransom" to set man free from sin, to whom was that ransom owed?

I doubt that it would even be possible to coherently answer all these questions. But even if it is, there's a deeper problem here: the vast majority of Christians don't even attempt to find those answers. In most cases, it doesn't even occur to them. They read or hear that Jesus is the Word, or that God exists outside of time, and they never think to ask what it might mean. Hundreds of millions of people are satisfied—even enraptured—with a religion held together by buzzwords. They thrive on what Eliezer Yudkowsky has called "mysterious answers to mysterious questions"—that is, non-answers that halt curiosity without furthering our understanding.

That's why the skeptical outlook is so important. In some cases, challenging people on their religious beliefs will only cause offense. But if we can teach people to habitually investigate extraordinary claims, many will apply that principle to their religion and start asking questions all on their own.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Powerful Thoughts, Vol. 3

Welcome to the third installment in my anthology of quotes about atheism and related topics. Here are ones centered on God and religion:
  • "Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer." –Anon
  • "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" –Douglas Adams
  • "If you believe what you like in the Gospels and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself." –St. Augustine
  • "Thank god gay people can't legally marry each other and destroy the sanctity of what Kim Kardashian did." –Alex Blagg
  • "Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one." –Richard Dawkins
  • "It is better to leave God out of the moral debate and find good human reasons for supporting the approach we advocate." –Richard Holloway
  • "You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion." –sci-fi author & Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard
  • "There is not enough love and goodness in the world for us to be permitted to give any of it away to imaginary things." –Friedrich Nietzsche
  • "Religion is the way we honour our ancestors' errors." –Mark M. Otoysao
  • "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." –Carl Sagan
  • "Religions are like fireflies: they require darkness in order to shine." –Arthur Schopenhauer
  • "No woman should accept any religion that assigns her a role that is at best secondary to men." –Sheila Tobias
  • "Religions are like politicians: they're easier to believe when they're vague." –from Reddit
And here are the ones centered around science and skepticism:
  • "We are all just a car crash or a slip away from being a different person." –neuropsychologist Paul Broks
  • "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." –Richard Feynman
  • "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong." –H. L. Mencken
  • "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." –Friedrich Nietzsche
  • "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." –Bertrand Russell
  • "Science is not perfect. It's often misused; it's only a tool, but it's the best tool we have. Self-correcting, ever-changing, applicable to everything; with this tool, we vanquish the impossible." –Carl Sagan
  • "[Humans] probably are to intelligence what the first replicator was to biology." –Anna Salomon
  • "If your philosophy is not unsettled daily then you are blind to all the universe has to offer." –Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • "The strength of a theory is not what it can explain, but what it can't." –Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • "Facts do not need to be unexplainable to be beautiful; truths are not less worth learning if someone else knows them." –Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • "If science is a religion, it is the religion that heals the sick and reveals the secrets of the stars." –Eliezer Yudkowsky
Finally, some outrageous quotes from fundamentalists:
  • "God has provided a more secure foundation for our faith than the shifting sands of evidence and argument." –Christian apologist William Lane Craig
  • "If somehow through my studies my reason were to turn against my faith, then so much the worse for my reason!" –Craig on his belief in Christianity
  • "Why are you reading those infidel websites anyway, when you know how destructive they are to your faith?" –Craig to a Christian expressing doubts
  • "How can you have judgment if you have no faith, and how can I trust you with power if you don't pray?" –Newt Gingrich in a recent GOP debate
As much as I enjoy the stimulating and provocative quotes from thinkers that are critical of religion, I find myself fascinated by the quotes from fundamentalists. Really, Newt Gingrich? Nonbelievers lack judgment and can't be trusted with power? Maybe you should try telling that straight to the faces of openly non-believing world leaders like Fredrik Reinfeldt (Sweden), Julia Gillard (Australia), Jens Stoltenberg (Norway) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile). I might expect this from ordinary religious extremists, but as of this writing, Gingrich is neck and neck with Mitt Romney as the highest-polling Republican presidential nominee. I'm not sure whether he truly believes what he said or merely wanted to appeal to voters, but either way it's appalling to hear this from someone who has a non-trivial chance at being our next president.

And then there are the three jaw-dropping quotes from William Lane Craig, considered by many to be the foremost Christian apologist on the planet. Coming from a man who claims to champion reason and evidence during his public debates, these views represent the absolute peak of intellectual dishonesty. To ignore logic, and to advise others to flee from opposing arguments, is simply beyond the pale. I can only imagine his outrage if atheists advised each other to take this approach. If Craig ever had a shred of my respect, he's certainly lost it now.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Sorcerer and the Squid

nce upon a time there was a sorcerer named Nobu, who travelled from town to town claiming to send messages to the gods... for a small fee. One day when he entered a remote fishing village, he discovered that everyone was dressed in black to mourn the death of a boy named Kenji, who was beloved by all the villagers. Kenji made friends easily, always offered to help the neighbors with their chores, and was shaping up to be the best fisherman in the village. But he had fallen ill a few weeks earlier, and while the local doctor had done the best he could, none of his treatments were effective. Kenji had been buried only that morning.

As the villagers crowded around the grave, Nobu put a consoling hand on the shoulder of Kenji's mother and announced, "I am a powerful sorcerer, and I shall intercede for you and ask the gods to restore this boy to life... for a small fee."

Excited murmurs rippled through the crowd. "You would do that for me? For us?" said the mother, a renewed stream of tears running down her face.

Nobu grinned a brown-toothed grin. "But of course. There is no guarantee that they will grant your request, but I will be happy to speak to them for you. Now, there's just the matter of my fee..."

"Wait!" said a girl pushing her way through the mass of people. Ai had been a close companion of Kenji's before his illness. When he returned in late morning from his fishing excursions, Ai would often be waiting for him at the dock. "How do we know this man has any special power? If only he can talk to the gods, how can we tell whether they're really talking back?"

"A very wise girl!" said Nobu. "I will prove to you that I can use my magic to communicate with the gods. You there! Fishermen! Did any of you catch any squid this morning?"

"Of course," said one.

"Then let me take one to demonstrate my power, for the gods are far more generous with squids than with men. If I cannot return it to life, I'll repay you for it tenfold and be on my way."

A few minutes later they gathered in a nearby house. A half-dead squid in a wooden bowl wriggled one tentacle feebly until a fisherman brusquely chopped off its head. With the crowd watching eagerly, the sorcerer placed his hands over the bowl and muttered an incantation. Then he reached into his satchel and took out a bottle of dark brown liquid. "O great gods of the ocean, hear my plea," he intoned. "Return this spirit to the land of the living."

As he poured the potion over the tentacles, the squid sprang to life, writhing and squirming so violently that it nearly fell out of the bowl. The crowd gasped, taking a collective step backwards. "You see?" said Nobu. "My power is strong."

This was proof enough for everyone. The gods must have heard Nobu's entreaty—how else could such a miracle occur? And so the next day everyone gathered at Kenji's grave. Nobu recited his incantations and poured his dark elixir over the freshly packed ground. "O great gods of the earth, return this spirit to the land of the living."

The villagers waited restlessly, but nothing happened. All the while Nobu's eyes were closed, his hands outstretched, his mouth moving silently. Finally he opened his eyes and addressed the crowd. "The gods in their wisdom have not seen fit to raise Kenji from the dead for now. But there is good news!" he said with a smile, his stained teeth glinting dully in the sun. "They have told me that they wish to prolong his absence to make you more fully appreciate him when he returns."

His audience mumbled approvingly. They were a bit disappointed, but then, who were they to question the judgment of the gods? For most, it was enough to know that Kenji would come back eventually. But not for Ai.

"Doesn't this seem a little convenient?" she asked the crowd. "Kenji is still dead and gone, Nobu leaves with a hefty reward, and everyone is satisfied with that?"

"Now, dear, we mustn't be ungrateful," said Kenji's mother. "This man has clearly spoken to the gods, and their wisdom is far beyond what we could ever hope to grasp."

"But what if that business with the squid was just a trick?" Ai insisted. "All he would have to do is create one illusion, and he could have us all convinced without any way of knowing if what he says is true!"

A fisherman grunted in objection. "Stop talking nonsense, Ai. What illusionist could possibly bring dead creatures to life? Do you think he had that squid dancing with invisible strings?"

"I don't know how he could have done it," said Ai. "But that doesn't mean that it was the work of the gods."

"Hmph. Unless you have some other explanation, what business do you have criticizing this man's sacred work?" Several other villagers murmured their agreement, then set about dividing the burden of Nobu's payment amongst themselves. Nobu's pack was filled with silver coins and enough fresh fish and other provisions to last a week.

Nobu smiled one last time. "I will visit your village again next year. Perhaps that will be long enough."

And so the next year, Nobu returned and (for another small fee) prayed to the gods on the villagers' behalf. When nothing happened, he returned the next year, and for many years after that. When the villagers tired of waiting, Nobu would find a new trick to perform, or pronounce the gods angry at their impatience. Meanwhile, Ai slowly grew frustrated at her village's credulity. When she was grown, she set out in search of another village to call home.

*       *       *

While this story was fiction, Nobu's trick is quite real—in fact, it's actually the centerpiece of a Japanese dish called odori-don, or "dancing squid rice bowl." We might better know the sorcerer's dark brown potion as soy sauce, which if poured over a freshly killed squid really will cause it to move around:

Yes, it really is dead, and the brain has nothing to do with the reaction: the same phenomenon can be observed with frog legsIt wouldn't be at all surprising if people once attributed these eerie occurrences to a magical force. When something that should be dead suddenly gets up and starts moving, it certainly looks as though its spirit has returned to its body. It also wouldn't be surprising to see people scoff at those who object to a supernatural explanation without providing a natural one: this is a classic argument from ignorance, or more specifically, the god of the gaps fallacy.

It was not until the mid-19th century that we would even begin to understand this phenomenon. In 1848, Emil du Bois-Reymond discovered the action potential: the rapid change in electrical charge that constitutes neural firing. In 1902, Julius Berstein hypothesized that this was caused by a change in the flow of ions across the cell membrane. Finally, in 1957 Danish chemist Jans Christian Skou discovered sodium-potassium pumps, which maintain a charge of about –70 millivolts by pumping sodium ions out and potassium ions in. When soy sauce is poured on the squid, sodium ions from the salt flow into its neurons, lessening the charge. When that charge reaches about –55 millivolts, it creates an action potential: the neurons fire, causing the squid's muscles to contract.

It took many brilliant scientists working in harmony arrive at this conclusion, and for most of human history this naturalistic explanation would be many centuries away. The villagers in this tale and their descendants—dozens of generations—could have lived and died before this complex biochemical mechanism was finally uncovered. This is why posing the supernatural as an explanation is misguided even if it seems that science will never be able to explain a phenomenon, and even if that phenomenon really looks supernatural. We don't need to have a naturalistic explanation to know that a vague and vacuous panacea, advanced without any positive evidence, is no explanation at all.