March 29, 2009
There’s a serious post waiting to come out here about the evidential, probabilistic Problem of Natural Evil, too. Once I’ve stopped laughing.
March 23, 2009
For his research methods class, this grad student is conducting a Pilot Study for a research proposal on atheism. If you’re an atheist, think about heading on over and taking the quick, anonymous survey.
The research tests attitudes about Hell and “coming out of the closet” regarding atheism, so my Christian readers can skip it.
Okay, so making fun of Ray Comfort is kind of a cottage industry for atheists; Richard Dawkins calls him the “Banana Man” for his infamous (and unintentionally hilarious video), and searching for Ray Comfort on YouTube is far more likely to take you to a parody or rebuttal video than to anything from Comfort himself.
But there’s a sad side as well: Comfort’s techniques encourage Christians to evangelize aggressively, confronting strangers in the street shouting a memorized “choose-your-own-adventure” style script that isn’t nearly as clever as Comfort thinks it is. And this sort of thing appears to be on the rise in churches big and small. Last year, in The Great Derangement, Taibbi went undercover at an evangelical megachurch overly fond of Comfort’s “Way of the Master” techniques.
Now, we have a report in Salon from Kevin Roose, who did basically the same thing during Spring Break with his Liberty University classmates. Comfort, it seems, is growing in popularity.
I don’t think Taibbi’s and Roose’s accounts are all that funny. (Well, besides the bit about Richard Simmons.) I find them depressingly sad. I can only imagine the weight on these people’s shoulders as they run out to get rebuffed, over and over again, trying to win converts from a bad script. Here’s the moment I found most poignant:
For these students, the choice is clear: The risk of being loathed and humiliated by strangers is far outweighed by the possibility that even one person will see the light and be saved.
Of course, just because the choice is clear doesn’t mean it’s easy. Tonight, at Razzle’s, I see Valentina, the Italian girl from Manhattan, sitting on a curb with a homeless veteran, her arm slung around his shoulder. It’s pouring rain, a real torrential storm, and both of them are being pounded by the thick drops. After a few minutes, she stops telling the veteran about God’s love and just sits there, holding him. And from across the street, I see her start to cry.
Later, back at the host church, Valentina tells the group about her breakdown.
“I was just sitting there on the curb, and I started thinking about how sad this all is. How sad it is that billions and billions of people are just dying without Christ. I hate that Hell is a real place, and I hate that sin came into the world through Adam, and most of all, I hate thinking about how all we can do — all anyone can do — is try to tell these people that there’s hope out there. They might not want to listen, but we have to keep telling them. For the rest of our lives, guys, we have to keep telling them.”
Every atheist has gotten the “well, what’s the harm if someone wants to be a Christian?” question. Not all Christians are forced to swallow Ray Comfort’s tripe, of course, but this strikes me as a real, psychological harm being inflicted on otherwise decent people.
Over at Cydonia Mensae, James McConnell asks (among other things) for atheists to explain where our morals come from and how we can distinguish right from wrong. I noted that there are two broad approaches that many atheists take that seem to me to provide a sufficient, reasonable explanation:
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March 18, 2009
[A] guy is suddenly decapitated and lies dead on the ground, and an hour later his head magically re-attaches itself to his neck, all his wounds are healed, his spilled blood is replenished, and he walks away unharmed. This time, however, a whole crowd of people shows up to pray for him. Some Catholics are there praying to various saints. The Buddhist monk is there praying to Buddha. Muslims show up and pray to Allah. Mormons show up and pray to a polytheistic Jesus. Pentecostals show up and pray to the Holy Spirit. Asians show up praying to their ancestors. There’s even a few neo-pagans praying to various members of the old pantheons.
Now, the guy gets up and walks away, and each of the pray-ers want to claim their God or god or saint or spirit is responsible. Which of them has a reasonable basis for claiming that it was their deity/entity, and no one else’s, that worked the miracle?
So far, no theists have replied. So, to my Christian readers: what do you think? Do you have a reasonable basis for claiming that it was God, Jesus, the saints or the Holy Spirit (depending on your denomination of Christianity) that worked the miracle? More importantly: how would you disprove the identical claims of followers of other faiths?
March 17, 2009
One of the longest-running discussions in the atheist community is one of tone. On the one hand, we have people like Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist.” That’s sort of the model I’ve tried to follow here. The other end of the spectrum is occupied by people like PZ Myers of Pharyngula, who is in what I would call the “take-no-prisoners” camp.
The principal arguments against “angry” atheism are that it reinforces negative stereotypes Christians already have about atheists, and that it inhibits dialogue and discussion and turns people away. As I’ve said, I find those arguments pretty persuasive, and it’s why I’ve taken the approach I have here. That isn’t to say that the take-no-prisoners folks are wrong; I love Pharyngula and visit it daily. I just think PZ’s goals are different from mine.
With that in mind, I think this video is an excellent counterexample; it’s from co-host Jeff Dee in last week’s episode of The Atheist Experience, a public access call-in show. Watch:
Obviously, Jeff is being aggressive with the Christian caller, and I don’t think he changed that person’s mind that day. But on reflection, I think this was exactly the right approach to take — even if it was not the one I would have taken. The caller (John) probably hung up a little bit miffed, and certainly no more positively inclined towards atheists. But John called in the first place to argue that atheists shouldn’t take offense at public Christian displays such as Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses; Jeff wasn’t going to change his mind in a single phone call, anyway.
But I think Jeff did succeed in placing a stone in John’s shoe (and perhaps other Christian viewers) by forcing John to confront the unpleasant nature of his beliefs. You can hear it in John’s voice and in the content of his answers; he doesn’t want to admit that Christianity says that unrepentant atheists get tortured for eternity. And good for him; that’s a horrible belief! So I think Jeff Dee shows us that atheists can engage in positive outreach by shocking Christians who would otherwise not have questioned their underlying beliefs.
If you don’t care about college basketball, feel free to skip this post. If you want to see my picks, top resources for filling out your brackets, and generally talk hoops, click on the more link.
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March 12, 2009
No, it doesn’t. But the question isn’t as absurd as it might sound on face.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is being used in quite a few different applications now. The essential idea is that by measuring oxygen utilization in specific regions of the brain, doctors can determine which areas are active during a given time frame – for instance, when performing a task or thinking about an idea in response to a question. It’s sort of like science based mind reading! Of course, analyzing the data is difficult and sometimes controversial, but the technique is giving evolutionary scientists a lot of new paths to explore.
A new study looked at the fMRI scans of 40 people while they were presented with various statements about God.
Statements based on God’s involvement — such as “God protects one’s life” or “Life has no higher purpose” — provoked activity in brain regions associated with understanding intent. Statements of God’s emotions — such as “God is forgiving” or “the afterlife will be punishing” — stimulated regions responsible for classifying emotions and relating observed actions to oneself. Knowledge-based statements, such as “a source of creation exists” or “religions provide moral guidance,” activated linguistic processing centers.
In short, the study concludes that there is no “God region” of the brain; a belief in the supernatural can arise out of the same regions that we use for every day life. No soul required.
The debate rages on within the community as to whether a supernatural belief was an accidental by-product of group interaction (being able to appreciate the concept of an abstract “other” and considering people who aren’t currently present is a short hop away from grasping a supernatural being) or an adaptation to group life (belief in a deity might have encouraged better child-rearing and group morality). This study seems to lead to the conclusion that religious belief could come from both camps — what began as an accident turned out to be fairly useful.
Of course, one should be leery of over-interpreting the results. This was a very small study with a new-ish technology that isn’t yet fully understood, a technology that currently has serious shortcomings. Not all variables were controlled. But the science will only continue to evolve and improve, and hopefully with it, our knowledge.
March 11, 2009
The intersection of food and atheism strikes again; this time, it’s a Christian fellow who says he’s sick and tired of all those recipes that call for Kosher salt. “What the heck’s the matter with Christian salt?” What, indeed.
Regardless of your theological beliefs, if you love to cook, then you definitely owe it to yourself to read what Michael Ruhlman — in my opinion, the best food writer in America — has to say about salt.
March 6, 2009
The Totally Fake Invisible Pink Unicorn and his Totally Real Elf Friends (or: Please Don’t Be Offended That I Don’t Believe In Your Jesus)
Many Christians bristle at some of the common analogies atheists use — things like, “I don’t believe in God for the same reason that I don’t believe in invisible pink unicorns” and the like. In fact, if you google “invisible pink unicorn,” the very first Christian site to come up takes great offense, calling these sorts of arguments “so severely flawed and ludicrous that you have to wonder about the sanity of the person using it.”
Sort through the spittle-flecked insults, however, and you get to the following concession:
Third, if there were millions of credible intelligent adults out there claiming to have seen or experienced invisible pink unicorns or Santa Claus flying in the air, then this comparison would have merit. But there aren’t, so this comparison is without merit.
True enough: there aren’t millions of believers in invisible pink unicorns. But as it turns out, there are hundreds of thousands of Icelanders who literally believe in elves.
Here’s how exapologist parses the data:
“Yes, without a doubt, elves exist”: 8%
“Yes, elves probably exist”: 17%
“Well, I don’t know, but their existence is a real possibility”: 37%
“Elves? Nah, probably not”: 19%
“Without at doubt, elves do not exist”: 13%
I think it’s important to treat Christians respectfully, give them their say, and understand why they believe what they do. I can also understand the instinctive, defensive reaction at having their beliefs compared to things that seem absurd. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe in your Jesus for the same reason that neither of us believe in elves. Seriously.