Thursday, October 27, 2011

Detecting Intelligent Design

One major assumption behind the intelligent design movement is that we can tell what objects are a product of design just by examining them. Obviously this is true for something like a watch—which is exactly the reason that William Paley used it in his famous watchmaker analogy. But we don't know that a watch is designed because it's complex or "specified." We know it's designed because we know that humans make watches and we have no evidence that they could form by a natural process.

Intuitively, though, we tend to think we'll always know design when we see it. For instance, the ridges on this stone pottery found in British Columbia clearly indicates that it was spun on a lathe, and holes have been drilled through the center:

Clearly, this pottery must have come from an ancient civilization... except it's not pottery, and these objects are naturally-occurring. They're carbonate concretions formed through a complex geological process, although objects like these really were misinterpreted as artifacts by pseudoscientific writer Graham Hancock.

Okay, so we're zero-for-one. Next is a charming, picturesque ring of mushrooms planted as decoration in a city park... which I mean, a fairy ring created as a natural result of an interconnected underground network of mycelia. Cultures of the past came up with many fanciful explanations for this phenomenon—generally involving the intervention of fairies, elves or some other intelligent agent.

All right, let's try this again. What about these cement pylons? This group of carefully shaped hexagonal bricks could serve not only as a protection from the erosion produced by incoming waves, but also as a staircase up to the shore.

Nope. These are basalt columns in the Giant's Causeway, caused by the rapid cooling of thick lava flows. Curses, foiled again.

Okay, here's the last one. This has got to be intelligently made, right? I mean, just look at those clean right angles. These are obviously the remnants of an ancient building, or some type of crop irrigation system:

...Or maybe it's tessellated pavement on the coast of Tasmania, created by a rare combination of stress cracks and erosion facilitated by the accumulation of salt crystals. Dammit, this design detection business is harder than it looks.

Of course the creationi—er, intelligent design supporters—may retort that these phenomena are simple compared to the incredible complexity of biological systems. But what I've provided here is just a proof of concept, showing that phenomena that appear to be thoughtfully designed for a specific purpose can undeniably be the result of natural forces. The crucial thing to remember is that life has a complexity-building mechanism that blows the ones displayed here out of the water: natural selection.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Judgment Day 2: Judge Harder

How could you not trust
a face like this?
Well folks, it looks like this is the end. In mere hours, our beloved Yahweh will send a global catastrophe the likes of which the world has never seen. Then Jesus will come down through the clouds to the sweet sound of trumpets, ushering his elect into hea—what's that? This was all supposed to happen yesterday? Never mind then, it looks like Harold Camping was wrong. Again.

Interestingly, though, things were a lot quieter and more timid this time around. This was probably in part because the group believes that no more souls could be saved after May 21st, so there was no need to continue the advertising blitz. But even among the faithful, the outlook was more cautious. Twitter's stream of incoherent rambling and irrelevant Bible verses, overwhelming three months ago, had slowed to a relative trickle. Prominent Camping follower Robert Fitzpatrick said he would spend his final day at home instead of preaching in Times Square. And most remarkably, Camping himself hedged his bets by using the word "probably" to describe his predicted apocalypse date, whereas before he had refused to even entertain the possibility of being wrong.

Naturally, though, the Campingites aren't ready to give up just because of a little thing like being proven wrong a fourth time (previously in 1988 and 1994 as well). They've already concocted an explanation that pushes the date back to this evening. And then there's this bit of ingenious cognitive dissonance resolution:
"And, even if the end of the world for some unknown or unsuspected reason does not come this year due to the frailties of our human understanding, that does not disprove everything we have taught; nor would it disprove the date of October 21, 2011, but it would simply mean that, in the Lord's providence, we were not granted a clear understanding of the nature of the happenings on October 21, but NOT THE DATE; the date has already been most assuredly proven[.]"
Even if they're wrong, they're right. It's fascinating stuff. If there's anything that following this story has taught me, is that there's no fact too obvious for the human mind to deny. I'll update this post if there are any further developments in the next few days.

Update: Camping released an audio message, maintaining that God is in control and will bring judgment day when he damn well pleases. He apologized for saying that no one could be saved after May 21, but not for wasting millions on advertising and gravely misleading thousands of people. According to The Christian Post, he doesn't think that the date can be known and has effectively retired as the head of Family Radio. The organization also issued repeated radio messages asking for more money to alleviate financial difficulties. They've driven their credibility into the ground, yet I'd still be surprised if their followers don't pay up.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Tale of Three Centurions

Or maybe it's just one.
Or is it two?
In the previous post I reimagined the tale of Jesus healing the centurion's servant. However, before I set out to write my own version I had to think carefully about which gospel account I wanted to use as my reference. Why? Because the accounts contain details that are outright contradictory.

Reading Matthew 8:5-13, one finds that the events are fairly straightforward: the centurion walks up to Jesus and begs him to heal the servant, and Jesus, impressed with the man's faith, happily complies. There's absolutely no suggestion that things might have been any different. But the same story in Luke has some very noticeable changes:
"So when he [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. ...Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, 'Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof.' " (v. 3, 5)
Whatever happened to the centurion? He doesn't interact with Jesus at any point, instead choosing to send not one but two waves of intermediaries: first "elders of the Jews" and later "friends." It should be plain to anyone that these two stories cannot be accurately describing one set of events.

As always, the apologists make some creative attempts to rescue these irreconcilable passages. In this case, the reply is that in ancient times, subordinates were considered to be mere extensions of those in power, so sending a representative was virtually the same as being there. I don't buy it: the centurion sends his own friends rather than some lowly underlings, and I doubt that people of any era would so casually misattribute a series of interactions this extended and complex. But it's moot even if the apologists are right, because they completely ignore the other big inconsistency: Matthew has Jesus healing the servant on the spot, while in Luke he first walks almost all the way to the centurion's house.

By the way, I have to touch on this priceless remark from Jim Estabrook at Apologetics Press:
"One must also admit that it is possible Matthew and Luke wrote about two separate accounts."
After indignantly arguing for two lengthy paragraphs that the two accounts are absolutely consistent, he spins on a dime and insists that it's possible that they refer to completely different events. Sure, Jim. It's possible that there were two faith-filled centurions who desperately wanted Jesus to heal their sick servants, and who were too humble to let Jesus enter their houses, and who used the exact same metaphor about the commanding of soldiers. It's possible. But to actually use this as a serious argument merely underscores how crude, how intellectually desolate, how pitifully detached from reality your apologetics truly are.

Speaking of separate accounts, I still haven't addressed the third version of the centurion story: John's. This time, though, there are some radical differences between the accounts: Jesus is in Cana instead of Capernaum, the centurion is instead called a nobleman, the servant has become a son, and the "nobleman" doesn't display the impressive faith that he does in the other versions. So why call them the same story at all? Well, look at the similarities:
  • A powerful man approaches Jesus begging for help.
  • Someone this man cares about is at home with a grave illness.
  • The ill person and/or the encounter with Jesus is in Capernaum.
  • Jesus heals just by saying the word rather than visiting the home.
  • The ill person is specifically said to be cured "that same hour."
This is far too big a coincidence for John's account to be separate, but it's also far too different to even try to reconcile with the others. Anyone who isn't consumed with religious bias can see what's going on here. Stories about Jesus were passed along through oral tradition, changing dramatically along the way. The author of John had heard a substantially different version of the centurion story than the authors of Matthew and Luke, and each author may have tweaked the details to suit their own purposes. The takeaway point is that the gospel accounts of Jesus' deeds are not consistent, they are not factual, and they certainly bear no mark of divine guidance.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jesus in an Alternate Universe

A few months ago I wrote an alternate version of the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac, one that values reasonable skepticism over faith. Below is the story of the healing of the centurion's servant, which I've reimagined in a similar way.

As Jesus entered the town of Capernaum, a centurion came up to him and pleaded, "Lord, my servant is lying at home in bed with a grave illness."

"I'm sorry to hear that, but I'm not a doctor. What do you want me to do about it?" asked Jesus.

"Ahahah! A holy prophet of God and a comedian!" the centurion exclaimed. "Well, I suppose I could ask you to come to my house and heal him, but to be honest I don't think I'm even worthy of you entering under my roof. But I believe in you, Lord. I know your power is so great that all you have to do is give the word, and my servant will be healed. I have a bit of authority myself—all I have to do is bark an order to my soldiers and they'll carry it out immediately. I'm sure that you can do the same."

Jesus was shocked. "My good sir! I have to tell you, I've never seen faith like yours before in my life! Not in Israel or anywhere else."

"Oh, thank you! What a great honor it is to hear you say that."

"Er... what? Why on earth would that be an honor?"

"Why, Lord!" the centurion exclaimed. "Just last week the local potter told me that his niece said, that her neighbor said, that you said that just having faith the size of a mustard seed would let one move mountains! I may not have that much faith, but I hope I have enough to ask you this one favor."

Jesus sighed. "I see people have been twisting my words again. What I said was that it makes no difference whether your faith is the size of a mustard seed or a mountain: what matters is your actions. Honestly, why would anyone think that believing something really hard is enough to accomplish anything? And without any good reason to believe it, no less?"

"Oh, but I do have good reasons! I've heard all the stories about you. Why, just the other day my wife told me that her brother told her that—"

"Wait just a minute!" Jesus interrupted. "You think I can do miracles just because someone told you they heard that I could? What kind of reason is that?"

"So... you can't do miracles?"

"That's beside the point. What I'm saying is that you can't just believe everything you hear, especially about something as amazing as healing the sick or turning water into wine."

"You can water into wine?" said the centurion excitedly.

"Oh for goodness' sake. Stop yammering and pay attention! Even if I seemed to turn water into wine right in front of you, that still shouldn't be enough to convince you that I actually did it. There are men who make good money profiting from gullibility like yours, men who can make things appear to happen when they really didn't."

The centurion stared, eyes wide with a mixture of solemnity and confusion. "They must be very powerful sorcerers indeed."

"Are you even listening to me? All right, forget it. Sir, please go find a doctor for your servant as quickly as possible. I have to go now."

With that, Jesus continued to walk towards the center of Capernaum. The centurion, stunned for a moment, blinked and followed after him, shouting, "Lord, wait! If you won't heal my servant, could you at least direct me to those sorcerers you mentioned?"

Monday, October 17, 2011

Against Omphalos

The Omphalos hypothesis is that although the earth and universe are young (6,000 years old is the usual claim among young earth creationists, or YECs), God created it with the appearance of age. That is, he carefully constructed life on earth, the ground beneath our feet, the stars in the sky, and everything else so that it would look billions of years old. The name comes from the Greek word for "navel," based on the implication that Adam was created with a navel even though he didn't need one. Although Omphalos isn't a very common position even among fundamentalists, there really are people who believe that dinosaur bones were planted by God to fool the scientists and other heathens.

So, is Omphalos a reasonable hypothesis? I will argue here that it is not.

What Omphalos Concedes
Before we begin, it's important to note what supporters of Omphalos must concede: that there is strong evidence for an old earth. This is crucial, because it means YECs who support Omphalos acknowledge that they seem to be wrong. Everything from asteroids to ice cores to DNA points to them being incorrect: they're supposedly right only by theological technicality. Once this is admitted, the only thing standing in the way of a true old earth view is demonstrating Omphalos' many flaws. Some supporters may then retreat back to a YEC view, but this only betrays an obstinate need to preserve their beliefs whatever the cost.

Is It a Good Explanation?
There are three reasons that we should be highly suspicious of Omphalos right out of the gate. First, an Omphalos-style universe would be identical to a truly old universe. Therefore, Omphalos is unfalsifiable: it can't be disproven, so if it's wrong we would have absolutely no way of knowing it. Intellectually honest people should want to know whether they're right or wrong, and Omphalos doesn't allow for this.

The second point is almost too obvious: there's just no evidence that Omphalos is true. The only reason some Christians advocate it is so they can continue believing what they've always believed. They can't point to anything in the physical world to support Omphalos. Nor does it have any theological basis: there's nothing like this claimed anywhere in the Bible, and (as we'll see later) there's no reason for a good God to act in this way.

The third reason is based on Occam’s razor. The old earth hypothesis explains the evidence at least as well as Omphalos, but the latter requires a huge additional assumption: that it only appears old because an omnipotent deity carefully designed it that way. Thus, the "old universe" hypothesis is the better explanation.

Is the Deception Justified?
Most Christians realize intuitively that Omphalos implies deception on God’s part, and therefore reject it. It's true that God would be knowingly causing people to believe something untrue, but could he somehow be justified in doing so? I'll examine a few ways that this might be the case, and then show why they're flawed.

The first argument was used by Philip Henry Gosse in his 1857 book Omphalos, in which the hypothesis was first formally proposed. He claimed that because God created a world with mature plants, animals and humans, he could have also created the rest of the world in a "mature" form. But there's a huge difference between creating mature beings that can care for themselves and elaborately faking the evidence found in craters, fossils, tree rings and countless other sources. The former is for the clear purpose of creating a functioning world, while the latter is blatant deception carried out for no apparent reason.

Second, maybe God set things up this way to test our faith, to see if we can ignore the misleading physical evidence and find the spiritual truth. But there's no good reason to trust personal revelation over empirical evidence. We know from studying the brain and human behavior that we're highly fallible and prone to everything from poor reasoning to hallucinations. In contrast, the scientific method is a massively successful truth-finding tool—and that tool points us to an old universe. If God wants to test our faith, he can do so without resorting to deception: for example, by seeing how we react in times of trouble, or asking us to do something difficult like missionary work.

If Christians still aren't convinced, they should imagine being raised in a non-religious home and brought up with the perfectly sensible old-earth conclusion. If they were later faced with the Omphalos hypothesis, which would be more reasonable to accept? The naturalistic explanation supported by a large body of evidence, or one that says a divine being has gone to great lengths to deceive them by creating fake evidence, in the hopes that they'll somehow see through the deception? Clearly the former. So would God be justified in sending them to an eternity in hell for believing a mountain of evidence over a mere gut feeling? Clearly not.

The elaborate deception that Omphalos implies also opens up the possibility that God is deceiving us about other things as well. For instance, maybe this is all a test—but in reverse. Maybe God will send those who accept the evidence to heaven, and send those who believe dogmatically in the unfounded claims of an ancient text to hell. While this is unlikely, it's still more reasonable than the traditional Omphalos hypothesis since it gives proper weight to empirical evidence.

Finally, once Omphalos proponents have run out of options, they may appeal to omniscience and claim that God could have a good reason for his deception that we just can't comprehend. Like Omphalos itself, the appeal to omniscience is a terrible explanation: it's unfalsifiable, has no supporting evidence and violates Occam's razor. Plus, we can only hope to understand God’s motives using our human reasoning, and based on this reasoning deception would seem malevolent. To believe otherwise is to rely on blind and unquestioning faith, which would be dangerous if God did turn out to be malevolent.

As I've shown, the Omphalos hypothesis is inconsistent with a good God because it would require elaborate, unjustifiable deception that would result in eternal punishment for millions of people. I have also shown that even if Omphalos didn’t require such deception, it would still be highly suspect due to its lack of falsifiability, evidence and parsimony. Therefore, Omphalos is an unreasonable hypothesis and a poor explanation of the natural world. Once we realize that the evidence clearly points to evolution and an old universe, we should embrace it instead of grasping desperately at far-fetched alternatives.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Men Like Trees Walking

Read the following little-known story about one of Jesus' miracles and see if you notice anything odd:
"Then He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything.
And he looked up and said, 'I see men like trees, walking.'
Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly. Then He sent him away to his house, saying, 'Neither go into the town, nor tell anyone in the town.' " (Mark 8:22-26)
Jesus spits on the man's eyes, which only partially restores his sight, and then he lays hands on him again, which finally heals him completely. Jesus heals dozens of people in the gospels, but this is the only case where he fails on the first try. Why should the perfect Son of God need two tries to heal a man? I have no idea—and as it turns out, I'm not the only one.

A useful visualization.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are collectively called the "synoptic gospels," and they contain much of the same material, sometimes even word for word. This is because the writers of Matthew and Luke both used material from Mark. In fact, only 3% of the content in the gospel of Mark is not used in either Matthew or Luke—and this passage is part of that tiny percentage.

For the few passages in Mark that contain completely unique content, the reason for their omission from Matthew and Luke is often quite evident. In one, Mark 3:20-21, those around Jesus think he's out of his mind—a rather embarrassing detail that the later authors would be eager to get rid of. The reason for removing the Parable of the Growing Seed is less clear; perhaps they thought its message was more muddled than that of the similar yet better-crafted Parable of the Sower. Finally there's the "Long Ending" of Mark, which is widely thought to be a forgery that was added later.

So it's no big surprise, then, that both of the later synoptic authors made a deliberate decision to remove the "blind man of Bethsaida" story from their gospels, while using all of the material surrounding it. They realized that this passage is totally inconsistent with the power that Jesus displays in the other gospel tales. Jesus making mistakes wasn't a big deal for the earliest Christians, who saw him merely as a messianic prophet. But as Jesus became increasingly exalted in Christianity (see my Jesus, Interrupted posts for more on that), the gospel writers were compelled to modify their stories accordingly. So went the very human process of editing a very human book.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Talking It Out

Two weeks ago my sister found out that I was an atheist. Things went better than expected, but I didn't talk to her face to face about it until yesterday. I walked to the UCSD campus, and we had an awkward but perfectly amicable discussion about my situation over lunch.

We didn't talk at all about my actual reasons for rejecting Christianity and becoming an atheist, because I didn't want things to get too heated. She did say she was surprised that I hadn't simply declared myself agnostic, which I cleared up pretty easily by explaining the technical definitions of atheism and agnosticism. Atheism relates to belief, while agnosticism relates to knowledge. Most atheists (myself included) don't claim to know that no gods exist, and thus would be classified as agnostic atheists.

My sister said that while she was sad that I had left the faith, she wasn't going to condemn me for it. She respects the atheist position, and acknowledged that there are a lot of dumb Christians out there, but said she didn't like people that call Christians in general stupid. I told her I agree: intelligence isn't really something that factors into religious belief one way or another, because people tend to keep their intellectual pursuits separate from their religion. She was also surprised and dismayed to learn that a couple of people have already tried to tell me I was never really a Christian—as if they could know better than I do what goes on in my own head.

Mostly, though, we talked about how I plan to tell my parents that I've stopped believing. Both of them would certainly be very upset. My mom would probably get pretty emotional, while my dad could get angry and defensive if we started getting into specifics. We discussed several potential options: a slow phase-out starting with a decision to stop attending church, an indirect solution like a bedside letter, or a more forthright across-the-table talk. In any case, she agreed to be there for the big reveal if need be.

Overall I think it went very well. My sister was very kind and understanding, although I'm a bit concerned that she might be less supportive if she knew that my attitude toward Christianity was one of strong distaste rather than mere disbelief. For now, the important thing is that our relationship isn't at all strained or defined by our beliefs or lack thereof. We can still talk and laugh about that annoying professor or the latest episode of that hilarious TV show without our differences getting in the way.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Yahwism: An Anachronistic Curiosity

Here's how people might summarize Christianity if it were an obscure and unfamiliar religion with no influence on its surrounding culture.

In our modern and enlightened world, an unusual but interesting group of religious sects still thrives in surprisingly large numbers. Research into this arcane order has revealed that its members appear to worship a heavily modified version of an ancient Near Eastern tribal war god known as YHWH (pronounced "Yahweh"). While followers of Yahweh will henceforth be referred to as "Yahwists," they are also sometimes called "Christians" or "Trinitarians," for reasons that will become clear shortly.

Yahwists believe that Yahweh is a perfectly benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing entity who is timeless, unchanging and eternal. While Yahwists ostensibly worship a single god, they also claim that Yahweh exists in three distinct "persons"—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—collectively known as the Trinity. Because these persons have discrete personalities and functions, many researchers have classified Yahwism as a polytheistic religion involving the worship of three gods, despite vehement insistence from Yahwists that these beings are somehow one and the same.

In the Yahwist creation myth, Yahweh creates the universe and life on earth in six days. This includes the first two humans: the man is fashioned from dust, and the woman from a rib of the man. After a talking snake (sometimes said to be the embodiment of the powerful evil spirit Satan) convinces them to disobey Yahweh, the human race becomes cursed with an inherent tendency towards evil, or "sin." Once humanity has flourished, he judges the humanity's evil to be so great that he destroys almost all life in a worldwide flood.

Later, after the earth has been repopulated, Yahweh selects a tribal nation called the Israelites (or later "Jews") to be his "chosen people," and aids them in conquering and killing the neighboring tribes who worship other, competing gods. He also creates a strict system of laws that seem primitive by today's standards: homosexuality is punished with death, while the keeping and beating of slaves is merely regulated. After the Jews lose favor with Yahweh and fall into the captivity of rival nations, Jewish prophets predict that an anointed one (or "Messiah") will conquer their enemies and establish a new reign of peace and prosperity.

Yahwists believe that this Messiah is a Jewish carpenter-turned-preacher named Yeshua bar Yosef (often referred to as "Jesus Christ"). Yeshua claims to be both Yahweh's Son and Yahweh himself (see the "Trinity" explanation above). Although he is crucified by the Roman Empire, he then comes back from the dead and ascends into the sky. This act of death and resurrection is seen as a blood sacrifice that atones for all human sin. (Further research is needed to clarify this process, as Yahweh is seemingly obligated to sacrifice himself in order to appease himself.) Many Yahwists expect that Yeshua will soon descend from the clouds to take them up with him, ushering in the apocalypse and the final judgment of the world.

According to many Yahwists, one's place in the afterlife is determined by one's belief in the deity of Yeshua and acceptance of his act of vicarious atonement. Upon death, those who believe (who have been "born again" and "washed in the blood of the Lamb") are said to enter a state of endless, blissful Yahweh-worship known as "heaven." Those who do not will enter hell, an underworld where they will experience eternal suffering. Moral actions do not factor into this fate: Yahwists believe that their god considers any human who doesn't follow his laws perfectly to be unambiguously evil.

The above summary represents but one Yahwist view; the hundreds of individual sects disagree about nearly every conceivable issue. Most of these doctrines originate from the Yahwist holy book, called ta biblia or simply "the Bible." Interestingly, while adherents of Yahwism believe the Bible to be a vital source of divine authority, relatively few take the time to read it. Yahwists use a combination of prosyletizing and child inculcation to propagate their beliefs, while heaven and hell create a high-pressure reward and punishment system to motivate conversion and deter deconversion.

Yahwism as a whole is not considered a major, direct source of harm to society at this time. However, some extremist sects discriminate significantly against other groups, and have attempted to subvert scientific research and enact their moral views into law. As with other religious orders, Yahwism's emphasis on faith and personal revelation over reason and empirical evidence could also have a negative influence on the population at large.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Bible for Skeptics

Many unbelievers think that the Bible is universally opposed to the use of evidence when it comes to religious matters. However, there are a few exceptions. Below I'll summarize three instances where biblical passages actually allow or even endorse the use of skepticism and empirical support.

In 1 Kings 18, Elijah conducts an experiment to determine whether Yahweh or Baal is the true God:
"And Elijah came to all the people, and said, 'How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him. ...Therefore let them give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.' " (1 Kings 18:20-24)
When nothing happens to Baal's altar, Elijah mocks Baal for his inaction. Then Yahweh sends down fire from heaven to consume the offering to affirm his status as supreme being. Finally, Baal's followers are captured and executed. I just love happy endings, don't you?

Then there are the tests that Gideon conducts to ensure that God will fight for them in Judges 6–7:
"So Gideon said to God, 'If You will save Israel by my hand as You have said— look, I shall put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.' And it was so. When he rose early the next morning and squeezed the fleece together, he wrung the dew out of the fleece, a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, 'Do not be angry with me, but let me speak just once more: Let me test, I pray, just once more with the fleece; let it now be dry only on the fleece, but on all the ground let there be dew.' And God did so that night." (Judges 6:36-40)
I have to admire Gideon's diligence here. One test isn't enough to convince him that God is on his side; he requires two. The evidence is weak by modern standards, but in that superstition-addled culture this would have been a rare moment of clarity. Gideon goes on to defeat the Midianites and execute its two princes. (I'm beginning to sense a pattern with the endings of these Old Testament stories.)

Finally we have the standard for prophecy that God offers in Deuteronomy 18. How do we determine who is a real prophet and who is a fraud?:
"But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, 'How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?'— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him." (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)
The standard that God gives via Moses is simple and 100% evidence-based. If the prophecy doesn't come true, the prophet is not of God—no exceptions. The false prophet must then be executed. (That's three for three!)

So what have we learned here? The message of these passages is pretty clear, though it may not be one that the writers originally intended: when it comes to god-related claims, what really matters is the evidence. If you call on your god to do something and nothing happens, that god is a false one worthy only of mockery. If you think your god wants you to do something, ask him to communicate in a substantive, verifiable way to confirm it. And if someone claims to be a divine prophet, they had better have a perfect track record of successful predictions to show for it.

How, then, could anyone fault atheists for their unbelief? If we test God and his representatives and they fail to measure up, our response is exactly the one that the Bible itself endorses—well, minus the capital punishment. It's perfectly acceptable to ask for an impressive, objective, physical demonstration of God's power. It's perfectly reasonable not to put stock in the prophets of the Bible when their prophecies fail. And it's perfectly fine to disbelieve in God (and based on Elijah's response, even mock him) since he makes no demonstrable impact on the world.

Now, one can also point to countless instances where the Bible takes exactly the opposite view: that faith without evidence is a virtue, and skepticism toward extraordinary claims is a vice. One verse decrees that we should completely trust God over our own understanding. Another even specifically says not to test God. It's not surprising that one can find both stances; all this demonstrates is that the Bible is not a particularly consistent or unified book. What I've shown here is that the Bible does endorse a skeptical viewpoint in a few isolated cases—and that's enough to show that God fails to meet his own standard of evidence.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Those Pesky Craters

Young earth creationists have a pretty serious problem. They're burdened with the task of explaining how all of this...

Yes, those are all craters on the moon.
...happened in just 6,000 years. We see craters like these on most solid bodies in our solar system, but for the sake of simplicity let's focus just on lunar craters for now. These craters demonstrate that our world is old in two ways. First, there's the evidence from sheer numbers. There are an estimated 300,000 craters larger than 1 kilometer on the near side of the moon alone—and the far side actually has significantly more. Based on the rate of such impacts, they must have taken place over hundreds of millions of years.

Then there's the evidence from big craters. The largest confirmed crater in the solar system is the massive South Pole–Aitken Basin, which is shown in dark blue on the right of the picture above. It measures an astonishing 2500 km (1600 mi) across. That's equal to the distance from San Diego to Memphis, from Dallas to Boston, or from Paris to Moscow. Had an impact of this caliber occurred while humans were alive, its effects would surely have been visible from earth, so why is there no mention of it in the historical record?

In addition, some craters on earth are also quite large, although tectonic activity makes them harder to find. The Chicxulub crater on the coast of Mexico is over 180 km (110 mi) across, and may have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. This impact would have resulted in worldwide earthquakes, wildfires, volcanic eruptions and kilometers-high tsunamis, filled the atmosphere with thick dust and broiled the planet’s surface. And that's not even the biggest crater. The largest one known, the Vredefort crater in South Africa (at right), is nearly 300 km (180 mi) across, so its effects would probably have been significantly worse. If impacts like these all occurred in the last few thousand years, isn't it strange that we have no human record for any of them?

There's not much YECs can do to effectively respond to these facts. Here's how Henry Morris, the father of modern creationism, tried to explain lunar craters in his book The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth:
"[T]he possibility is at least open that the fractures and scars on the moon and Mars, the shattered remnants of an erstwhile planet that became the asteroids, the peculiar rings of Saturn, the meteorite swarms, and other such features that somehow seem alien to a "very good" universe as God must have created it may have been acquired later. Perhaps they reflect some kind of heavenly catastrophe associated either with Satan's primeval rebellion or his continuing battle against Michael and his angels."
That's right, folks. The man largely responsible responsible for popularizing creationism in 20th century America believed that craters on the moon may have been caused by an outer space battle between angels and demons.

Nowadays, YECs make the (only slightly less silly) claim that these impacts, while caused by real asteroids, were made during Creation Week, the Fall or the Flood. What they always conveniently fail to mention, however, is why. They could argue that the impacts on earth might be some form of divine punishment. But what possible reason could God have for hurling asteroids at the moon and even distant planets? Such actions would not have affected us in any way.

The truth is that most believers in a young earth never even consider the implications of phenomena as simple and obvious as impact craters. The few that do can only offer explanations that are both ridiculous and inadequate, letting their faith fill in the rest.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Best of YouTube

Now that I've looked at some of the worst that YouTube has to offer, it's time to look at some of the best: religion and skepticism videos that I find highly useful, entertaining or informative. I'll share three of them today, which are aided by great production values and well-edited content. Let's start with a video debunking irreducible complexity:

QualiaSoup produces some of the most clear and information-rich videos on YouTube, and this one is no exception. In under eleven minutes, he summarizes creationist quote mining, explains the evolution of three systems (eyes, beetle spray and flagella) that may seem too complex to have evolved, outlines the problems with design arguments that use man-made objects as metaphors, lists the mechanisms by which irreducibly complex systems can evolve, and explains why intelligent design has no place in our school system. People who go into this video thinking that irreducible complexity is valid would have to be seriously biased to continue in that belief at the end.

Tim Minchin's 9.5-minute rant on pseudoscience and skepticism really is a blast. He skewers all sorts of weird clich├ęs offered up by the credulous, all in the guise of a clever, funny, free-flowing beat poem. My favorite part comes at 7:30, when the intensity of his rant suddenly clears and he asks, "Isn't this enough?", accompanied by a gorgeous depiction of our solar system and other galaxies. It really is sad that people can be so focused on what almost certainly isn't there that they fail to appreciate what is.

And finally, there's this simple yet effective video from The Thinking Atheist:

The topic of this video is quite straightforward: it covers the basics of Christianity, from the perspective of a mother explaining them to her newborn child. Yet somehow this novel viewpoint clarifies and focuses our understanding. It makes even more evident the absurdity of calling a baby inherently evil and corrupt due to circumstances beyond their control. Those saucer eyes watching closely as the mother explains that God will never directly reveal himself, as she explains the imperative to make other believe as they do, and to praise God until the end of time. It would be funny if it weren't happening in millions of families all over the world. And then there's the second "welcome to this world" at the end of the video at the end to bring it full circle. Gives me goosebumps every time.

So as we've seen, YouTube has plenty of horrendous stuff, but like any medium it can be used to impart good ideas as well as bad ones.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Worst of YouTube

I only occasionally frequent YouTube, but every so often I come across something religion-related that truly frustrates, shocks, or demonstrates the harm that religion can cause. Below are three such videos. I'll start with Richard Dawkins' interview with creationist Wendy Wright:

This is just part one of seven, but I imagine most people don't make it much further simply because the exchange is so frustrating. Wright is calmly oblivious for the duration of the interview, willfully ignoring Dawkins' points with a smile plastered permanently on her face. There's a point where Dawkins tries to anticipate her mention of Haeckel's embryos, but she says that, no, what she was really going to talk about were those drawings of fetuses in the textbooks. The woman isn't even well-versed enough to recognize her own talking points. It goes to show that with some people, there's just no point trying to have a conversation. They'll just smile and nod, then Gish Gallop over to next topic.

The next video, thankfully, isn't so much irritating as it is hilarious:

This is David Barton, a man best known for trying to revise America's history to show that it was meant to be a "Christian nation." He's been enthusiastically endorsed by conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, Michelle Bachmann and Mike Huckabee, as well as libertarian pundit Glenn Beck. And here we see this influential idiot declaring that God hated the brickmakers of Babel because they were damned dirty socialists. Let's count the levels on which his reasoning is laughable:
  1. He's assuming the truth of an obviously fictional event.
  2. Creating similar bricks does not make people look and act the same.
  3. Socialism has nothing to do with everyone looking and acting the same.
  4. Nothing in Christianity implies that God particularly dislikes socialism.
  5. An impartial reading of the text reveals that God dislikes the construction because it shows the people are a legitimate threat to his sovereignty.
  6. There's a freaking brick wall right behind him.
Finally, an appalling example of religion being injected into a public school:

This is possibly the most blatant breach of church-state separation I've ever seen. Christian musician B-SHOC all but acknowledges that he's breaking the law by evangelizing at a public school, and seems to positively relish this fact. I have a feeling he might view this sort of child indoctrination differently if it were a group of Muslims that had come in and convinced students to convert to Islam. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has notified the district's superintendent, so I can only hope that those involved (including the school's principal, who helped set up the event) will face the proper consequences.

That's enough shocking stupidity for one day. Next time I'll cover some of the useful, quality content that YouTube has to offer.