May 28, 2009

Obama Loves Creationists (?!?)

Posted in Atheism at 10:27 pm by Andrew

President Obama is reportedly considering creationist Francis Collins as head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Words fail me.

The Case Against Lee Strobel

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism tagged , , , at 8:00 pm by Andrew

Answering another email question, this time about the occasional asides I’ve made here against Lee Strobel.

Let me say this: the works of Lee Strobel are one of the things that crystallized my atheism. As a Christian, as an argument for Jesus/Christianity/theism, I think he has absolutely no credibility; as a person, I think he has absolutely no scruples. Here’s my case:
Read the rest of this entry »

May 26, 2009

Sotomayor to Supremes

Posted in Law tagged , , , at 9:38 am by Andrew

…so says CNN. I’m disappointed in Obama’s surrender to identity politics, and also because I preferred Diane Wood for this spot.

Addendum: It’s not that Sotomayor isn’t smart or isn’t qualified, or any of the silly things I’m hearing on CNN and MSNBC right now. Obviously she is. It’s that, in the rarefied air of Supreme Court picks, Sotomayor doesn’t have the intellectual heft of a Scalia or Roberts.

Remember that simply replacing Souter’s vote with Sotomayor’s preserves a 5-4 status quo in favor of the current activist-right court; Obama’s objective here was not merely to find someone who would vote like Souter, but someone who could presumably persuade Anthony Kennedy on more close calls. From my perspective, Sotomayor isn’t that kind of pick.

May 24, 2009

Democrats Can’t Be Christians, Says Falwell’s Liberty University

Posted in Atheism tagged , , at 10:42 am by Andrew

Two days ago, Liberty University revoked the charter for the campus branch of College Democrats, continuing the religious right’s Republican Death Spiral.

May 21, 2009

Darwinus masillae

Posted in Science tagged , at 2:51 pm by Andrew

Everything you need to know about Darwinus masillae, the new primate fossil released yesterday.

EDIT: Deleted inaccurate reference to hominid.

Substitutionary Atonement and the Analogy to the Courtroom

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Law tagged , , , , , , , , at 11:05 am by Andrew

The Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement is often explained by an analogy to the courtroom: sinners stand before a judge (God) and are properly adjudicated guilty and deserve punishment, but that fine can in turn be paid by someone else (Christ). I imagine most of us have heard this analogy. (If you haven’t, or if you want to delve into it more deeply, you might enjoy this article by J.I. Packer, “The Logic of Penal Substitution.”) In any event, I think I’m representing this view fairly, and I’m sure my commenters will correct me if not.

If so, then I have to say that from the perspective of a lawyer, the analogy makes absolutely no sense. The law can be thought of as roughly dividing into two spheres, civil and criminal. Civil law focuses on recompensing the victim; if I steal $100 from you, you sue me for the $100 in order to be rendered whole. That kind of debt can be paid by someone else, but only because civil contract law is wholly unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of the actor. To put it another way: our civil law setup is such that we neither encourage nor discourage people from breaking contracts; we just require that if you do break a contract, you (or someone else) has to render the contractee whole. Even if you break a contract maliciously, civil law doesn’t really care and doesn’t impose any kind of penalty on you to stop you from breaking contracts again in the future. It isn’t “justice” in the colloquial sense of the word (and in the sense that Christians are invoking the concept when they draw the penal analogy).

Criminal law, on the other hand, has an entirely different focus. It is concerned with the goodness or rightness of the actor, and it is wholly unconcerned with recompensing the victim; that’s usually what we think of with the word “justice.” Thus, criminal convictions impose a public penalty in order to punish the wrongdoer and deter him and others from committing the same offense against society in the future.

It would make no sense in the criminal scheme to allow someone else to serve out a convicted criminal’s sentence (or pay his fine, or whatever). The point isn’t to get the money; it’s to impose a hardship on someone who’s a danger to society and deter others from following in his shoes. So that’s why the penal substitution analogy doesn’t work; if a penalty can be paid by someone else and you can go scot free, it isn’t “justice” — at least, not in the way we humans understand it.

This is so readily apparent to anyone (even nonlawyers) who think about it that it surprises me that the analogy and argument continue to be so popular (e.g. Todd Friel and the Way of the Master crowd).

Atheists in the Courthouse (or: You’re Not Helping, part 2)

Posted in Atheism, Law tagged , , , at 10:25 am by Andrew

In the U.S. — and in most, if not all of the Western world — a witness in court can elect whether to “swear” an oath (by reference to God) or to “affirm” under penalty of perjury the same oath (without such a reference). As far as I know, this seems to please just about everybody; religious folks can swear to God if they want, people who belong to religious sects that forbid those sorts of oaths (such as, I believe, Jehovah’s Witnesses), can affirm, and atheists can also affirm. Everybody wins.

Well, almost. For this particular nitwit, he decided to object to a police officer being sworn during a routine traffic court hearing in Vancouver, BC:

THE DISPUTANT: Your Honour, I object to the court proceedings starting off with a lie. It is not ‑‑

THE COURT: Well, what is ‑‑

THE DISPUTANT: It’s not a good indication that this is a fair trial if the witness starts off lying about there being a God and that he swears to it.

Ultimately, the cop concedes to affirm under oath (without reference to God) rather than be sworn in with the religious reference, which is what I imagine most of us would do when someone is ranting in the courtroom about irrelevancies. But let me be clear: atheists shouldn’t behave this way, and if you tried this sort of nonsense in a U.S. courtroom, you’d quickly find yourself in contempt.

May 20, 2009

The Break of the Curveball

Posted in Baseball, Law, Science, Worldview tagged , , , , at 12:34 pm by Andrew

When delving into presuppositional arguments (or the Argument from Reason, or other claims by Christians in support of mind-brain dualism), I’ll often point out that the brain we have is not cognitively reliable in precisely the sort of ways you would expect given evolution — e.g., things like Alien Hand Syndrome, optical illusions, and so on.

Thanks to Stephanie, I’ve now found the single best illustration I’ve ever seen of the way in which our brain can be fooled: the break of the curveball in baseball.

Those of us who threw curveballs know the fundamental dilemma: a classic, Blylevenesque “12-to-6” curveball appears to break much more sharply than it actually does. Part of the work of the “break” is accomplished by downward spin, and part of it is accomplished by optical illusion.

If you follow this link, you’ll see the optical illusion portion of the curveball’s break illustrated vividly. Watch the path of the spinning ball, and you can see that it travels in a straight line. Shift your focus to the blue spot, and the ball seems to be curving away from you at a drastic angle. It’s eerie!

The authors conclude:

In baseball, a curveball creates a physical effect and a perceptual puzzle. The physical effect (the curve) arises because the ball’s rotation leads to a deflection in the ball’s path. The perceptual puzzle arises because the deflection is actually gradual but is often perceived as an abrupt change in direction (the break). Our illusions suggest that the perceived “break” may be caused by the transition from the central visual system to the peripheral visual system. Like a curveball, the spinning disks in the illusions appear to abruptly change direction when an observer switches from foveal to peripheral viewing.

Just another datapoint in support of the view that our cognitive faculties are the unreliable, cobbled-together product of millions of years of evolution of the physical brain, and not some disembodied mind crafted by an almighty God.

Answering Email: Prayer in Schools

Posted in Atheism, Law tagged , , , , at 10:52 am by Andrew

In light of my previous discussion on the Establishment Clause, a commenter emailed me to ask about the status of student-led prayers in public schools. As you (may) know, the common refrain that the Supreme Court “banned prayer in public school” is incorrect; students may pray voluntarily and may otherwise engage in religious activities on school properties on an equal footing with secular activities as a part of their First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion. (And — although you wouldn’t know it from folks like Jay Sekulow — the ACLU is actually the biggest defender of Christians and other religious people in these sorts of free exercise cases.)

But as you also probably know, the Free Exercise clause has its limits, and those limits come into play when a governmental policy seems to prefer religious behavior to secular behavior. Thus, what the Supreme Court did in Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) — surprisingly, the Wikipedia article on this is pretty good — was to prohibit state-led and other mandatory prayers in public school.

So that led one commenter to ask me:

Andrew – What about prayers that are led by students in front of the other students at, say, a football game or a graduation?

I thought this was such a great question that it deserved to be front-paged. Here’s my take:
Read the rest of this entry »

Presuppositionalism, Part 5 (Or: What Counts As a Worldview?)

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Worldview tagged , , , , , at 9:55 am by Andrew

Continuing the discussion of presuppositionalist arguments for Christianity, one common thread seems to be that Christianity as a worldview better “explains” certain features of the world than does a naturalist/physicalist worldview. While I have previously challenged the dichotomy inherent in the argument — one need not be a naturalist/physicalist in the strong sense to be an atheist, of course — I also challenge the premise itself.

So let’s start with first principles: what does it mean to give an “explanation” for something? One need not accept Kant’s epistemology to nevertheless recognize the distinction Kant drew between (1) the analytic and (2) the synthetic. An analytic explanation is one where the explanation is derived entirely from the predicate of the proposition; put more simply, when I say, “That object is a triangle, because it has three sides,” I have given an analytic explanation. I haven’t told you anything about the triangle that you didn’t already know, because the definition of a triangle is that it has three sides.

On the other hand, if I say that object is green because it was painted with watercolors, I have given you a synthetic explanation; that is, one in which the proposition contains more information than is simply found in the predicate.

Now, to the point: it seems to me that only a synthetic proposition truly counts as an ‘explanation.’ If I say that the grass is green because it has a “green-producing nature,” that isn’t really an explanation. Ultimately I’ve told you that the grass is green because the grass is green. An explanation doesn’t just tell us that something exists; it tells us how.

And this is the problem I have with presuppositional apologetics and comparative worldview arguments. It’s just not an explanation in the synthetic sense to say “God did it.” It doesn’t tell us ‘how,’ it just gives us another name for the problem.

So my question to those of you who favor those sorts of comparative “worldview” arguments: what’s your criterion/-ia for what counts as an “explanation?”

Next page