Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Secret's Out

I've been an atheist officially for a few months now, but I've been keeping the fact that I'm no longer a Christian from my parents and sister for well over a year. Only a small group of people are aware of my unbelief. So imagine my surprise when I got this message from my sister on Facebook:
Yo. Brother. Why'd you join the rational thought @ ucsd club..? O.o It's pretty much an atheist club...
Someone added me to the Rational Thought @ UCSD group on Facebook a few days ago. I couldn't find any references to it on my personal page, so I assumed that no harm would be done. I don't know what the tip-off was exactly, but apparently I was wrong. After I read her message, I decided I had no choice but to tell her the truth.
[Sister's name],

I'm sorry. I've been wanting to tell you, mom and dad for a while, but I haven't been able to work up the courage to do it. I've been studying Christianity for a long time now, and after a while I just wasn't able to believe anymore. Given everything I know right now, atheism is the best stance for me to take. I'd like to ask that you not tell anyone for the time being, mom and dad included. It's important to me that I'm the one to tell them.

I want you to know that I love you, and that I'm still the same person you know and love, regardless of what I believe or don't believe.

If you'd like to talk more about this, I would be glad to set up a time and place to meet.

I don't know that I've ever been more anxious about anything in my life, but maybe I should consider this a blessing in disguise. Had she not found out, who knows how long I would have had to live while keeping this secret hidden. I guess I'll just have to see how things go. I'll update this post later once she responds.

Update: Here's her response:
Okay... I wont tell them. I love you too, and not any less, of course. ♥
im willing to talk if you want, but im fine with whatever you want/feel comfortable with.
Clearly I have the best sister ever.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

God Doesn't Care About Free Will

One of the most common notions within Christian apologetics is that God places enormous value on human free will. The free will defense is used as an attempted solution to the problem of evil: it's argued that God has no choice but to allow the possibility of evil if he wants us to make real choices. It's also used as an attempted explanation for why God doesn't show himself to the world: doing so would supposedly rob of us of our ability to freely choose to follow him. Those two defenses have serious problems of their own, but here I'll argue that the very premise that God treasures free will is flawed, both due to the nature of our world and according to Christian doctrines themselves.

Free Will in the Bible
Looking to the scriptures in support of the idea that God values free will is not just fruitless, but counterproductive. Exodus says that God repeatedly hardens the hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians so he could exalt himself by showing off his power. 2 Thessalonians says that God will send sinful people "a strong delusion" so that they will be damned. Romans and Ephesians say that God predestines certain people to be saved or condemned for his own glorification. This doesn't sound like a God who values free will. It sounds like a God who uses people as playthings.

There are a few other ways that God limits free will in the Bible. I don't accept the apologist's idea that God revealing himself to us removes our free will to choose or reject him. However, if we do accept this, then a serious problem arises: in the Bible, God unleashes a barrage of miraculous phenomena even in the presence of unbelievers. For example, in 1 Kings Elijah calls on Yahweh to send down a pillar of fire, consuming an offering in the presence of hundreds of Baal- and Asherah-worshippers.

God also kills an awful lot of innocent children in the Old Testament—well before they would be mentally capable of choosing to follow him. In the tenth plague of the Exodus story, God strikes every Egyptian firstborn dead on the spot. The flood story is even more egregious: he systematically kills every human on earth except Noah's family, children included. And this doesn't even begin to cover the problem...

Free Will in Reality
...Because if humans gain souls and personhood at conception as many Christians claim, then over 70% of us die before we're even born. That's billions upon billions of people who never got the chance to choose or reject God. If he does care about free will, his incompetence in preserving it is nothing short of breathtaking.

If we define our ability to make informed, unbiased decisions as part of what constitutes free will, then the structure of our world impairs our free will at every turn. Our religion and worldview are determined to a large degree by our parents and surrounding culture. Someone growing up in Saudi Arabia, for instance, will almost inevitably become a Muslim. They will seldom choose Christianity because it's not a readily available option. Even if they encounter a Christian missionary, they're still likely to reject this new faith, because central tenets such as the Trinity doctrine will be completely alien to them.

Our brains also obstruct our attempts to make free choices. Cognitive biases over which we have limited control alter our perceptions, memories and thought patterns. Brain damage is even worse. Disorders like frontotemporal dementia can reconfigure your personality and rewrite your belief system, while akinetic mutism can erase your will to move, speak or even think.

If God cared about free will, he could easily have structured the world to solve these problems. We don't need to have high rates of miscarriage, exclusivist societies or immensely fallible brains. If God is omnipotent, he could easily have prevented these hindrances. It doesn't matter whether these phenomena are the result of sin entering the world at the Fall of Man: God could still remove these effects with a snap of his fingers if he wanted to. Since he hasn't, he either doesn't value free will or values some other factors (Fetal death? In/outgroups? Mental bias?) even more.

Free Will in the Afterlife
Finally, let's shuffle off our mortal coils for a moment and consider what would happen to believers once they enter heaven. Supposedly Christians who choose to follow Jesus are rewarded with an eternity free from evil and full of bliss in the presence of God.

So, then, are Christians in heaven capable of sinning or choosing to leave the presence of God? If they are, then their presence in heaven is not guaranteed, but contingent on their continued compliance with God's standard of perfect obedience. (It does no good to say that they have free will, but won't want to use it in this way: if Satan and his followers did, then why not others?) If they aren't, then they have lost their free will: their only path is steadfast servility. They are automatons, machines frozen in a permanent state of ecstatic worship.

Neither Christian doctrine nor the observable world supports the notion that God cares about free will. God supposedly hardens people's hearts, predestines them to an eternal fate, reveals himself to unbelievers, kills innocent children and demands complete submission in heaven. Meanwhile, fetuses die by the billions, people take on the religion of their parents and culture, and their fallible brains impair or even destroy their ability to make free choices. Christians should either explain why God permits and perpetuates these phenomena, or stop using free will as a defense against the problem of evil and the problem of nonbelief.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Quotable Me, Vol. 2

A few months ago I compiled some of the short observations I've made on my Twitter account, @OtherSideReflec. This is the second installment. Again, much of the credit for these ideas should go to the many brilliant freethinkers I've been fortunate enough to learn from over the past year or two.

Here are some comments on Christianity:
  • Of all the tricks Christianity has pulled, the greatest is to convince people that a loving God can punish us eternally simply for unbelief.
  • Some Bible translations (e.g. NIV) purposely bury contradictions and atrocities. Imagine the outrage if atheists designed a translation to worsen them.
  • The Bible says nothing about gay marriage. If Christians want to base their argument on the Bible, they should be arguing to outlaw homosexuality entirely.
  • If a Christian explains away a passage as metaphor, just ask, "A metaphor for what?" It's kind of pointless if no one actually knows what it means.
  • One of the weirdest claims about the Bible is that it's a "unified" book. Read Leviticus, Psalms, Mark and Revelation. Then try saying that.
  • God's reasoning: "I'll give humans dozens of cognitive biases, then send them to hell if they don't believe based on a warm fuzzy feeling. It's perfect!"
  • Jesus' crucifixion demonstrates his loving self-sacrifice in the same morbid and incoherent way as a madman presenting us with the gift of his own severed limb.
  • Discoveries the Bible could have predicted: atoms, sanitation, relativity, the brain's function, evolution, heliocentrism, electricity, America, exoplanets, Newton's laws, tectonic plates, vaccines, DNA, radioactivity, Antarctic fauna...
On religion, God and atheism:
  • "Islam is a religion of peace!" No, a subset of Muslims are people of peace, in direct defiance of their holy book.
  • Science and religion are quite compatible. All religion has to do is yield to science on every subject where science has something to say.
  • God's traits remind me of two kids arguing over action figures. "Mine has infinite power!" "Well mine knows everything, and he's outside time!"
  • If a prophecy is only recognized after its "fulfillment," it either wasn't a prophecy at all or was far too vague to be impressive.
  • Following divine command theory has the same moral value as obeying someone who has a gun to your head.
  • People who only do good because God says to don't have morality, but rather a superficially accurate simulation of it.
  • It's ironic that the words in the Pledge of Allegiance between "one nation" and "indivisible" are themselves divisive.
  • Liberal religion's relationship to extremism: "All that's needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing."
  • Sending inherently sinful humans to hell for not being perfect is about as fair as sending a goldfish to hell because it can't do calculus.
And on skepticism:
  • Reports that the Washington Monument was tilted after August's earthquake are a perfect example of how expectations warp our perceptions.
  • Literally any belief, when shown to be false, can be preserved with sufficient rationalization.
  • I suspect the Dunning–Kruger effect extends to cognitive biases as well: people bad at avoiding bias likely think they're above average.
  • For some reason, even the most fearsome supernatural entities cower in the face of controlled laboratory conditions.
I like the Twitter format quite a bit. The 140-character limit does get a little cramped, but it's still an ideal place to jot down any thoughts that I don't feel compelled to flesh out into a full blog post, as well as to post links to atheism- and science-related news stories. It even helped lead to the arrest (and hopefully rehabilitation) of Dennis Markuze, a notorious spammer who constantly made graphic death threats against many atheist bloggers. Who says Twitter is a waste of time?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How to Destroy Naturalism in 4 Easy Steps

This little shop in Boston
could change the world.
Are you a healer, a psychic, a medium, an exorcist, or someone who's witnessed a supernatural event? Are you looking to become world famous as the individual who caused humanity to completely overhaul its understanding of the universe—and make a bit of extra cash as a bonus? You're in luck, because now you can! All you have to do is provide sufficient evidence that your supernatural phenomenon of choice actually occurs. I'll show you how in just four easy steps.

1. Have multiple, reliable witnesses.
If you tell me you saw an exorcist stick a Bible in a demon-possessed man's face, causing such an adverse reaction that his head spun around, all you have is a spooky story. There's absolutely no reason for me to believe you, because it's far more likely that you're either lying or mistaken. It's far better if you have other people to corroborate your story, but the character of those people is also important. If they have a history of drug use or mental illness, or have been known to lie, or have some conflict of interest, or have been primed to expect certain things out of exorcisms as a result of a highly religious upbringing, they're not going to be very convincing. You'll want skeptical, upstanding citizens as witnesses to your supernatural event, and the more the better.

2. Write down what happened.
Memories are delicate things, prone to being erased, altered and rewritten—especially in high-stress situations. Maybe you think you saw the head spin around... but you really only saw it jerk violently to the side, you turned away in horror, and your brain filled in the rest. The best thing for you and your witnesses to do is to write down, as soon as possible and in meticulous detail, exactly what occurred during this event. Don't discuss what happened beforehand, lest you influence each other's interpretation of events. Later, if it turns out that one of you saw the head turn clockwise and another counterclockwise, consider the possibility that you both just got caught up in the excitement of the moment.

3. Get it all on tape.
Witnesses are helpful, but ultimately people can say anything they like. Audiovisual recording devices trump them any day of the week. If you show me crisp video footage of a man's head doing a 360, I won't believe you right there on the spot, but I will sit up and take notice. Can this sort of thing be faked? Absolutely. There are prosthetics makers and computer animators who create effects like these for a living. But that's okay: weeding out the particularly crafty charlatans is what the final step is for.

Sorry, an artist's depiction ain't gonna cut it.
4. Replicate your results.
Got your reliable witnesses, consistent testimonies and recorded evidence? Great! Now you're ready for the big leagues. In fact, this final step is the only one that really counts, but supernatural phenomena fail it so reliably that it's only worth unleashing it on the serious contenders.

You will be asked to repeat your supernatural event of choice in a controlled setting. That's it. Simple, right? Just have your exorcist use his Bible to spin another person's head like a corkscrew, and you've made history. We'll be watching, of course. There will be cameras and scientists watching closely to make sure there's no funny business. But I'm sure that won't be a problem. Oh, and once you do shock the world by offering proof of the supernatural, there's just one more thing we'll need to do...

Tinker like there's no tomorrow.
You didn't think it was going to end there, did you? That we'd just destroy naturalism and call it a day? I certainly hope not.

By doing the apparently impossible, you've piqued the curiosity of every scientist on the planet. A kinesiologist will ensure these people can't somehow turn their heads that far all on their own, and do x-rays to understand the mechanics of that twisting motion. A linguist will analyze the demon's vocabulary and speech patterns. A psychologist will conduct extensive interviews to get the demon's complete mental profile. An anthropologist will try to glean information about past cultures that the demon presumably lived through. A neuroscientist will do fMRI scans to compare brain activity before and after exorcism. We'll also want to find out the mechanism of the "Bible corkscrew" effect. Does it work with a different book disguised as a Bible? How about half a Bible, or one that's written in Wingdings? What if the possessed person is blindfolded or on the other side of the room? Now that we've opened up this can of worms, we'll need to know all this and a whole lot more.

Okay, let's face it.
We're probably never going to get to this point. If the supernatural is real, destroying naturalism ought to be easy, but the fact is that anyone who actually tries to replicate their results in a tightly controlled setting fails miserably. No one ever makes it past step four, and that doesn't bode well for the existence of spirits, magic and psychic phenomena.

But even if naturalism were to die, science would enter a new era of exciting opportunity. Why? Because we will have proven that the supernatural interacts with the natural world—and if we can interact with it, we can measure, test, explain and understand it. The religious often see the supernatural as unknowable, but they couldn't be more wrong. If it's an observable part of our world, it's just one more realm for science to conquer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Homophobia in the Bible

Yeah! Three cheers for suffocating,
moralistic theocracy!
Murder, slavery and misogyny are all evils which the Bible supports but most Christians today would strongly condemn. In contrast, homophobia and anti-gay sentiment are still rampant within modern Christianity, which makes the biblical support for this kind of bigotry all the more significant. Let's start by examining such references in the Old Testament:
"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination." (Leviticus 18:22)
"If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them." (Leviticus 20:13)
Notice the intensity of the language: few if any words could condemn homosexuality more forcefully than "abomination." And OT law is both unambiguous and gruesome: the punishment for gay sex is death. Apologists (perhaps with a hint of relief) are quick to argue that Jesus rendered this law obsolete, but that's of no consolation to those who were oppressed and killed beforehand. For example:
"Then the LORD rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the LORD out of the heavens. So He overthrew those cities, all the plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground." (Genesis 19:24-25)
In the story, the male population of Sodom tries to rape Lot's male companions—a bigoted portrayal which implies that all homosexuals are depraved monsters. But since everyone in multiple cities is killed, the attempted rape can't be the reason for God's wrath. God is incinerating the inhabitants of these cities for their "sexual immorality," including the horrific crime of... being gay. Jude offers further commentary:
" Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." (Jude 1:7)
The people of Sodom, Gomorrah and the surrounding cities have "gone after strange flesh," presumably a euphemism for the ostensibly "unnatural" act of gay sex. Jude even takes it a step further: their crimes are worthy not only of death, but of endless torment in the flames of hell. Finally, let's take a look at one more common anti-gay theme in the Bible:
"[T]he law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars..." (1 Timothy 1:8-10)
"...For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind... filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them." (Romans 1:26-32)
Homosexuality is not merely condemned, but repeatedly associated with truly horrendous acts like kidnapping and murder, not to mention every negative character trait imaginable. In Romans, Paul claims that people who reject God are inclined to commit all kinds of sin, and that homosexuality is thus correlated with everything from boastfulness to deceit to violence. And for good measure, we have another candid pronouncement that gay people deserve death.

As homophobia becomes less acceptable in modern society, it's likely that Christians will try to downplay and explain away instances of anti-gay sentiment in the Bible, just as they did for slavery and misogyny once black people and women began gaining rights. They have no basis for doing so. The Bible quite unequivocally condemns homosexuality as disgusting, immoral, and worthy of death and eternal suffering. No amount of rationalizing or evasion will change that.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My Pro-Christian Bias

Everyone is subject to countless cognitive biases that pervade all aspects of their thinking—myself included. As such, a Christian might look at this blog and conclude that I'm heavily biased against Christianity.

If anything, the opposite is true.

Well, that's not to say I don't have any bias against Christianity at all. But in truth, the bias that affects me the most on a daily basis is a bias in favor of Christianity, especially the evangelical Protestantism that I grew up with. Believers may scoff at this, of course, but they should hear me out. It's true that I'm highly critical of Christianity, but it's also the case that I've spent over a year of my life carefully studying it, always open to the possibility that I've overlooked some powerful evidence of its veracity. So here's the real question:
At this point, why should Christianity even be worthy of my consideration?
My true bias is that I've shown Christianity extensive favoritism, continuing to seriously investigate it long after I would have given up on any other religion. I haven't even bothered to look closely at Jainism, Hinduism, Bahá'í or Zoroastrianism. I've essentially concluded that they're false without giving them so much as a glance. But that's just the beginning: by one estimate, there are approximately 10,000 distinct religions in the world, including 150 with at least a million followers. Why is it that I haven't examined them one by one? Why haven't I studied Ayyavazhi, Druze, Konkokyo, Quimbanda, or Thelema? For that matter, why haven't I studied extinct religions such as ancient Norse mythology? It's because I have no reason to believe they're true... but the same could be said for Christianity. I'm using a double standard, one that works out massively in Christianity's favor.

Norse gods have the additional advantage
of looking really damn cool.
Some may object that only the current major religions are worthy of consideration—after all, what kind of god would allow his or her religion to become obscure or extinct? But this entails the major assumption that deities desire human attention. If one were to start without any presuppositions, one might expect precisely the opposite. Another objection might be that Christianity at least tries to offer evidence in its favor, such as arguments from the historicity of Jesus' resurrection. This is a fair point, but I still spend far more time on these flimsy arguments than they deserve. Besides, I've paid so little attention to the other thousands of religions that they might also offer such evidence without me even knowing it.

So where does my pro-Christian bias originate? Now, it's true that one of my motivations for studying Christianity is so that I know what to say when I finally reveal my unbelief to my family. Another reason that understanding Christianity is important is due to its pervasiveness in American politics and culture. But there's one more reason. After 20 years of exposure to Christian teachings, I'm so accustomed to the gospel story and the various doctrines that I grant them more credibility than they deserve. Even though intellectually I understand that the concepts of the Trinity and Jesus' atonement are bizarre and even incoherent, the subconscious, emotional parts of me don't particularly care. And the doctrine of hell has seared into my mind a fear of being wrong that defies my easy dismissal of Pascal's Wager.

The very fact that I spend so much time analyzing Christianity demonstrates my bias in its favor. If I was being completely impartial, I would have stopped taking it seriously as soon as I adopted a stance of skepticism toward extraordinary claims. But time and again unwarranted doubts about my conclusions creep back in, forcing me to check just once more to make sure I was right. It's frustrating, but at least by identifying this bias, I've taken the first step towards counteracting it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Death of the Soul

Christians believe that every human has a soul: an immortal spiritual entity—one with thoughts, emotions, memories and desires—that controls the brain and body, and will go to heaven or hell upon physical death. In a nutshell, most Christians think that you are your soul. Below I will lay out the reasons why it's unlikely that this is so. (Along the way I'll be borrowing heavily from Ebon Musings' absolutely fantastic essay "A Ghost in the Machine.")

In Philosophy
The concept of the soul is already at a disadvantage from a philosophical perspective before the debate even begins, simply because dualism is more complicated than its alternative. It has more components than monism, and thus (all else being equal) is inferior as an explanation. There is no reason to posit the existence of some ghostly supernatural entity unless doing so offers more explanatory power. The burden of proof is ultimately on people who believe in the soul to prove that the soul exists, not on nonbelievers to prove that it doesn't.

So let's start with a basic philosophical and scientific question: how is it, exactly, that the spiritual interacts with the physical? The natural world is made up of matter and energy, while spiritual things are composed of... well, that's actually not at all clear. In any case, physical processes like firing neurons can only occur as a result of physical forces exerted according to physical laws. For non-physical souls to exert force on a physical object would be to constantly violate the fundamental laws of the universe. To say that miracles are constantly occurring in the heads of every human on the planet is to make a claim that is extraordinary in the highest degree, with no evidence whatsoever to back it up.

In Biology
The problems for the soul doctrine start right from the moment of conception. As it turns out, a single human zygote sometimes splits in two to create identical twins. In other cases, two human zygotes can fuse to create a single person, known as a chimera. So, does one of each pair of identical twins then lack a soul? Does a chimera go through life with two souls that battle each other for control of the mind and body? I suppose God could jump in and add a soul if a zygote splits, or only put a soul into one of the zygotes that will fuse into a chimera. But what a needlessly convoluted system this would be, when it's so much simpler to just relent and admit that no souls are needed at all.

Another practical problem becomes apparent when looking at the issue from an evolutionary perspective: when, precisely, did we get souls? Over the past few billion years, we've made a smooth transition from self-replicating molecule to intelligent, sentient human. Did we have souls all along, or did we acquire them along the way? What made God shove a soul into that particular member of Homo sapiens (or whatever creature it was) and not its relatives—and what exactly did this addition grant them that they didn't already have? From a biological standpoint, the addition of a soul seems both superfluous and arbitrary.

In the Brain
The most serious problems with the soul are revealed when one closely studies the brain itself. For instance, one interesting consequence of neuroscience is that we can monitor a person's brain activity and predict with 60% accuracy which of two choices they will make—10 seconds before they are conscious of having made a decision. The implications are enormous: rather than a soul signaling its choice to the brain, it appears that these choices are dictated by preceding brain activity. As our technology continues to improve, our prediction intervals and accuracy will doubtless increase, demonstrating this with even greater clarity.

Mental disorders are yet another powerful indicator that a person's identity does not reside in some ethereal spirit:
  • If your hippocampus is damaged, you may get anterograde amnesia. You would be incapable of forming new memories; your identity would be forever remain just as it was at the time of the damage.
  • A stroke in your right brain hemisphere could not only paralyze the left half of your body, but also cause you to deny your paralysis and even invent sincerely believed excuses for why you won't move.
  • Damaging your ventromedial prefrontal cortex (as in the famous case of Phineas Gage) may impair your ability to plan and make decisions, making you go from kind, polite and responsible to grouchy, crass and lazy.
  • If you've inherited a disorder called frontotemporal dementia, your entire worldview—including your politics and even your religion—might be completely altered.
  • If your right hemisphere is incapacitated, you may become emotionally dead; one patient who'd been close with his sister simply didn't care when he was told that her leukemia had relapsed.
  • A brain tumor pressing against the orbitofrontal cortex could cause you to become sexually promiscuous or even a pedophile.
  • Damage to the frontal lobes could give you environmental dependency syndrome, causing you to automatically make use of any object (e.g. write with a pen or comb with a brush) placed in front of you.
  • If your anterior cingulate cortex is damaged, you might develop akinetic mutism, leaving you fully conscious but completely removing your will to move or speak.
If our identity is contained within the soul, it seems absurd that a brain disorder can utterly erase or even rewrite one's personality, beliefs, memories and free will. It's hard to see how Christians can possibly hope to explain this, and yet I still haven't gotten to the most damning evidence against the soul: the split brainOne effective treatment for epilepsy in the mid-1900s, used only in extreme cases, was to sever the corpus callosum, a small band of tissue connecting the two hemispheres of the brain. Using specially designed tests, scientists found that one hemisphere can know things that the other doesn't, and the two hemispheres can respond to stimuli independently of one another.

But that's only the beginning. In one case, a man's left hemisphere expressed a desire to become a draftsman, while the right hemisphere's ideal job was racecar driving. In another instance, a woman's left hemisphere was suicidal and repeatedly tried to use her right hand to strangle herself to death. In still another, one hemisphere believed in God, while the other did not. What does one call this, if not two distinct identities occupying one head? Do these people have one soul or two? And if only one, where would the theist/atheist go upon death?

Yeah, we're pretty sure it doesn't
work this way.
There are a couple of frameworks that theists may use to explain these phenomena. Maybe the brain is the medium through which the soul interacts with the world, and if that medium is broken, the soul can't get its messages through. But this would imply that deep down every mentally impaired person is lucid, trapped, desperately trying to communicate with the outside world. This is not only ridiculous, but demonstrably false: people who recover from mental illnesses report no such struggles.

Maybe the brain is the self, but its contents are later transferred to a spiritual body upon death. But why would God allow the self to be become utterly compromised so easily? Experiments have shown evidence that certain pathways in the brain are what cause religious experiences of all kinds. So why not just leave souls in the spiritual realm, where their experiences can't be impaired by brain damage or counterfeited by false religions? Furthermore, if a brain is damaged to the point where the selves before and after the damage are mutually unrecognizable, which self is allowed to move on to an afterlife, and on what grounds is the other excluded?

I've shown here that the concept of the soul is flawed in numerous ways. It not only adds needless complexity to our understanding of the mind, but also conflicts deeply with biology, neuroscience, and even the fundamental laws of physics. Most brain scientists and philosophers of mind long ago gave up on the sort of dualism espoused by Christians. It's high time for the rest of the world to follow their lead.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Time for Remembrance

We won't forget.
Here we are, 10 years from one of the most terrible and most significant events in American history. It's a time to reflect upon the nearly 3,000 people who died, and how it changed our way of thinking as a society. It's also a time to reflect on what causes senseless killings like this to occur. The answer is not so simple as "Islam" or "religion." Nor can we simply narrow it down to "religious extremism." In truth, this is but one symptom of a deeper ailment.

What really causes people to do these things is an unshakable conviction in their beliefs, including the belief that violence is the best way to accomplish their goals. If someone is absolutely convinced that the most effective way to protest a perceived problem with the government is to bomb innocent people, they may end up like Timothy McVeigh. If someone truly believes that God has told them to become a martyr and kill themselves along with the infidels, they may end up like those 19 hijackers. Once a violent belief has taken hold of a true believer, nothing will convince them otherwise. The mind of a true believer does not respond to logic or reason. Quite the contrary, in fact: such people will not only reject them, but also be proud of having seen through the evil deception of their enemies.

The root of the problem does not lie with a specific religion, or with religion in general, or even with ideological extremism. The very heart of what causes people to kill innocents is a rejection of the tools that have been proven to reliably find truth (like logic, science and skepticism) in favor of others (like dogma, faith and special revelation) that are superficially and subjectively convincing but hold no weight upon careful inspection. That doesn't mean that every religious or credulous person will fly a plane into a building. Far from it. But using the wrong tools for finding truth creates many more possibilities to arrive at the wrong conclusions. Wrong conclusions lead to false beliefs, and false beliefs can have very real and even catastrophic consequences.

So, this September 11th, I remember the victims with great sorrow, and the perpetrators with disgust. But I also remember the warped and biased methods they used to arrive at their conclusions. These, in the end, are what we're really fighting against.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Letter to a Christian Nation

Over the last couple of days I've had the pleasure of reading through Sam Harris' book Letter to a Christian Nation. It was a blazingly fast read, partly because it had only 114 generously-margined pages and partly because I was already familiar with most of the content. For the same reason, though, there's not a whole lot for me to say about it.

While atheists won't find much new in LCN, Christians may be shocked at what they find. Harris jumps efficiently from one topic to the next, making eloquent points about the damage religion has done to the world and dispatching misconceptions about atheism at the same time. I found myself agreeing with most everything Harris said, and his words are so carefully honed that any given sentence could stand on its own as an insightful quote.

I suppose I should cover some of the novel things I did manage to learn from the book. For example:
  • Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin thought heretics should be killed. Augustine merely thought they should be tortured.
  • The Family Research Council opposes a vaccination program for the human papillomavirus because it would remove a deterrent to premarital sex.
  • The Vatican is opposed to condom use even to prevent HIV from spreading between husband and wife.
  • The Vatican perpetuated the myth of blood libel up until 1914.
  • 81% of Hurricane Katrina evacuees said that their experience strengthened their religious faith.
  • Experimenting on a human blastocyst in South Dakota can be punishable with up to 2 years in prison.
Facts like these (and there were many more were these came from) should make the damage religion has caused obvious to all but the most extreme fundamentalists. However, it also concerns me that a few of Harris' statements were quite inaccurate. For example, he says that "If current trends continue, France will be a majority-Muslim country in twenty-five years—and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow." Yet the Pew Forum's projection for 2030 pegs the proportion of Muslims in France at a mere 10.3%. The fact that the global number of Muslims is expected to have doubled from 1990 to 2030 (from 1.1 to 2.2 billion) is alarming enough without stretching the facts as Harris apparently did.

Overall, though, LCN is a much-needed book: one that explains clearly, concisely and unflinchingly what is wrong with religion. Its contents should be eye-opening to those who don't realize that the Bible sanctions slavery and genocide, and that people can be (and usually are) good without God. It may not be news to atheists, but if every religious person were to read this book, I think the world would be a very different place.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Deflating the Supernatural

Let's take a few steps back from the theological debate. For just a moment, we'll ignore the questions like whether Christianity is true and even whether God exists. Instead, let's focus on an even more fundamental issue: Is there such a thing as a supernatural or spiritual realm?

Amazingly, even people who aren't particularly religious sometimes believe in ghosts, demons, souls, magic and psychic phenomena. They may casually mention that they went to a séance or used a Ouija board. They take the spiritual for granted, as though it's as mundane and natural as a trip to the grocery store. This puzzles me. They don't seem to realize that to say that the spiritual exists is to make an earth-shatteringly extraordinary claim: that there is a separate, parallel reality that overlays and interacts with the physical world.

The supernatural is inconsistent with our background knowledge. Even most of its supporters concede that spirits don't appear very often—and when we do get reports of weird phenomena, they never quite manage to show up again upon closer investigation. In addition, all of the entities in everyday life are composed of particles and obey the fundamental laws of the universe—yet even here the supernatural stands defiant. The supernatural is also unparsimonious: it violates Occam's razor by proposing elaborate explanations where simpler ones would suffice. For example, given what we already know, it's far easier to explain the movement of a Ouija board marker as a result of the ideomotor effect than as a spirit taking control of someone's body.

Ooh, unconscious motor behavior. Spooky.
If the unparalleled boldness of supernatural claims still isn't clear, imagine what would happen if science were to conclusively detect the existence of ghosts or demons. It would be the single greatest discovery in all of human history. It would be the lead story of every news outlet on earth for months. There would be a flurry of research to create better methods to detect and study them. Entire fields of study and billions in research dollars would be dedicated to gaining knowledge of something that's fundamentally opposed to our understanding of how the world works.

So we've established that supernaturalism makes an extraordinary claim. Where, then, is its extraordinary evidence?

There is none.

Out of everything we've ever subjected to scientific scrutiny, nothing has conclusively evaded a purely natural explanation. Lightning, spoon bending, epilepsy, fairy photos, rainbows, the diversity of life on earth—the list goes on. And if something has yet to be explained naturalistically, that most certainly does not imply that the supernatural explanation is correct. Given that over the past several thousand years we've been steadily finding ordinary explanations for seemingly extraordinary phenomena, we have every reason to expect this trend to continue. To paraphrase Richard Carrier, would you rather bet on the horse that's won a million races, or on the horse that's never won at all?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Powerful Thoughts, Vol. 2

I've posted both my own pithy thoughts on religion and skepticism related topics and those of various other thinkers (which isn't to say that I equate my ideas with theirs–on the contrary, I owe them a great deal for helping me formulate my views in the first place). By now I've compiled more than enough additional quotes for another installment.

We'll start with the ones related to God and religion:
  • "The word 'militant' is applied to the religious when they bomb and to atheists when they speak with non-deferential clarity." –Anon
  • "If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse." –Woody Allen
  • "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." –Susan B. Anthony
  • "To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today." –Isaac Asimov
  • "Faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail." –Sam Harris
  • "Every pulpit is a pillory, in which stands a hired culprit, defending the justice of his own imprisonment." –Robert Ingersoll
  • "Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." –Thomas Jefferson
  • "The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike." –Delos B. McKown
  • "A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything." –Friedrich Nietzsche
  • "Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme is up to all of us to become his moral superior." –Terry Pratchett
  • "Saying the United States is a Christian nation is just as ridiculous as saying it is a white nation." –from Reddit
And here are some related to science and skepticism:
  • "Just because something is obvious doesn't mean it's true." –Anon
  • "If animal body plans do reflect design, we can conclude that the designer wanted to make things look as though they had evolved." –Jerry Coyne
  • "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." –Philip K. Dick
  • "The Creator, if he exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles." –J.B.S. Haldane
  • "Certainty is responsible for some of the most awful terrors in the world." –Anthony Hopkins
  • "Forget Jesus. The stars died so you could be here today." –Lawrence Krauss
  • "The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning... However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light." –Stanley Kubrick
  • "You know what they call 'alternative medicine' that's been proved to work? Medicine." –Tim Minchin
  • "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." –Friedrich Nietzche
  • "How many people here have telekinetic powers? Raise my hand." –Emo Philips
  • "Believing in microevolution but not macroevolution is like saying you believe in millimeters but not miles." –from Reddit
  • "Science is atheistic in the sense that plumbing is atheistic. It limits itself to the study of natural causes." –Eugenie Scott
  • "He must be very ignorant, for he answers every question he is asked." –Voltaire
  • "Most people are happy to explain away even the most compelling data rather than abandon their cherished beliefs." –Richard Wiseman
And finally, a few fundamentalist quotes:
  • "What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin." –Rev. Richard Fuller, in 1845, on slavery
  • "Monkeys are still having babies; why don't they have another human today?" –YEC Kent Hovind
  • "You know, it's a theory that's out there. It's got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution." –Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, unaware that Texas doesn't teach creationism
I like being able to present comedians and ordinary internet denizens along with legendary thinkers like Voltaire and Nietzsche. It helps to demonstrate that the source of an idea doesn't really matter, because it's the meaning that counts. In my first installment I went through a lot of trouble to ensure the veracity of every quote, but it occurred to me that if they offer insightful commentary on the nature of belief and science, that insight is valuable regardless of who it came from.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Problem of Poorly Communicated Salvation

If only it were this simple.
In the past others have written about some general problems with the Christian God's supposed ability to communicate his will. Here I want to address a specific facet of this issue, with what I'll call the Problem of Poorly Communicated Salvation (PPCS). Here it is crystalized into a formal syllogism:
  1. If the Christian God existed, he would clearly communicate the criteria for salvation.
  2. The criteria for salvation have not been clearly communicated.
  3. The Christian God does not exist.
The syllogism is a valid argument in the modus tollens logical form, so if you accept the first two premises, you must accept the conclusion. I'll tackle the second premise first.

The Unclear Criteria
Virtually all Christians and even most nonbelievers think that Christian salvation is pretty straightforward. After all, you just have to believe in Jesus, right? Well, hold on a minute. Let's be specific and methodical about this. Which of the following are necessary or sufficient for entrance into heaven?
  • Belief that God created the heavens and the earth
  • Belief that the Bible is the Word of God
  • Belief that the Father is God
  • Belief that the Holy Spirit is God
  • Belief that Jesus is God
  • Belief that Jesus is God's son
  • Belief that Jesus became fully human
  • Belief that Jesus died on the cross
  • Belief that Jesus rose from the dead
  • Belief that you are sinful
  • Acceptance of Jesus' forgiveness
  • Lack of belief in any other gods
  • Verbally confirming that Jesus is God (Romans 10:8-10)
  • Avoiding blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32)
  • Denying oneself and following Jesus daily (Luke 9:23-26)
  • Forgiving others for their sins (Matt. 6:14-15)
  • Bearing children (For women only: 1 Tim. 2:14-15)
  • Baptism (Believed among Catholics, Lutherans, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses: Mark 16:16; John 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21)
  • Good works (Among Catholics and Orthodox Christians: James 2:14-26; Rev. 20:11-13)
  • Being chosen by God (Among Calvinists: Eph. 1:4-5; Rom. 8:29-30, 9:11-22; 2 Thes. 2:11-13)
  • Someone else being baptized on your behalf after death (Among Mormons: 1 Cor. 15:29)
When we break the Christian worldview down into fragments that we can accept or reject individually, we reveal the true complexity of the situation. What if I believe Jesus died for me, but I think he was only divine (or only human)? What if I believe in both the Trinity and the Hindu pantheon? What if I don't believe in the Holy Spirit? What if I do everything else right, but I don't do any good works or get baptized? And what happens when people die before they're too young to understand the requirements, or die before ever hearing of them? I'm not just being pedantic here; if Christianity is true, these questions have quite real and profound implications for anyone who happens to fall into such categories.

My guess is that if I gave the above list of potential requirements to a hundred Christians, I would get close to a hundred unique responses. Why? Because for all its chatter about redemption and salvation, the Bible never actually gets around to laying out a condensed, consistent and precise set of necessary and sufficient conditions for entering heaven. If this were not so, there would be no need for the evangelical tool known as the "Romans Road," which takes tiny bits and pieces from throughout the book of Romans and patches them together to summarize the gospel and the standard Protestant requirements for being a Christian.

Remember, God is supposedly perfect. He could come up with the exact set of words that would cause the least amount of confusion among his followers. So if God is such a great communicator, why are various Christians sects (and individuals) in such disagreement on the exact requirements for salvation? Why didn't he inspire the biblical authors to write them out clearly and succinctly in big bolded letters?

The Enormous Stakes
At this point it should be obvious that a perfect God could have communicated salvation far more clearly than he did. The first premise of the PPCS deals with a different question: would he have done so if he existed? I think most people would intuitively say 'yes,' but just to be thorough, I'll try to explain exactly why an unerringly God would act in this way.

First, there's the issue of earthly violence that has come about as a result of this confusion about what's necessary for salvation. A large part of the difference between Catholics and Protestants, for example, comes down to differences of opinion on this topic. Who knows how many lives could have been saved if the Bible were clearer about salvation? Perhaps the Thirty Years' War, the Catholic Inquisition, and the Troubles of Northern Ireland could have been largely or completely prevented—and that would be just the beginning.

And second, I want to stress the importance of the afterlife in Christianity. If you're saved, you are rewarded for eternity; if not, you're punished in the fires of hell for eternity. People by their very nature are unable to fully grasp the idea of an infinite length of time, so I think it's quite impossible to understate the implications of this doctrine. If even one person goes to hell as a result of a misunderstanding, the resulting harm is boundless. And when we're talking about the fate of billions of people, the stakes grow to ludicrous, incomprehensible heights.

The Christian God is supposed to be benevolent: he doesn't want us to suffer unnecessarily. He's also supposed to be deeply personal: he wants us to be with him. He has every motivation to make the requirements for salvation crystal clear and easily accessible to all human beings. So what's stopping him?

Could free will be the issue? I don't see how; God could easily make the Bible more straightforward without interfering with anyone's autonomy just by magically editing the text himself. Maybe he thinks this uncertainty will test our commitment to interpreting his words? But thousands of theologians throughout history have devoted their whole lives to the scriptures, and they were still unable to agree. Could it be that Satan and his minions are muddling up the wording? Surely God could put them in their place with a snap of his fingers if it was important to him. Beyond this, I honestly don't see any other viable explanations. Christians can play the "God works in mysterious ways" card if they like, but such an unparsimonious and unfalsifiable cop-out shouldn't be convincing to anyone.

When it comes to the task of leading us on the path to salvation, the Bible is a disorganized, inconsistent mess—despite the fact that the stakes riding on it couldn't be higher. I think I've shown with reasonable certainty both that the Christian God failed to make the precise requirements for salvation sufficiently clear, and that he would in fact have done so if he existed. If we accept the two premises of the PPCS, the only possible conclusion is that this version of God does not exist.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

July & August in Review

Continuing my tradition, this is an index and summary of my posts from the past two months. Here are the ones from July:
And from August:
I was on vacation for most of July, which explains why my activity slowed down quite a bit. Last month I managed to finish off my coverage of both of the books I've been writing about since January. It was an enlightening experience, but I'm glad to be done so I can move on to new projects. I'm also quite happy with my posts about misogyny and murder in the Bible; I don't see how anyone can find the passages therein to be consistent with a benevolent God.

When I started this blog at the beginning of the year, I didn't really think it would get this far. It's allowed me both to organize my thoughts on religion and to improve my writing skills through consistent practice, and in my view that alone makes the endeavor well worth it.