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Obama’s Prayer and the Problem of Religious Leaders

The act of prying Obama’s written prayer from the Western Wall in Jerusalem and handing it off to an Israeli journalist was unquestionably an invasion of privacy. Forget the condemnation of the act as sacrilegious and as an affront to the relationship between a man and his god. Those criticisms only make sense, of course, if that god exists and the religious claims about him are true. In the event that Yahweh is fictitious, the piece of paper pulled from the Western Wall is nothing more than Barack Obama’s internal mutterings to an expansive fantasy. But they were his own and the privacy of the words ought to have been respected.

That said, their content is troubling. Obama wrote,

Lord — Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.

I’ve added the emphasis because the mainstream press hasn’t. There are two explanations for Obama’s words. The first is the cynic’s take. He knew the prayer would be leaked to the press and used it as an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of his faith to religious voters. Obama was raised without belief and so must make every effort to convince the nation’s faithful that he shares their reverence for things unseen. An expressed lack of such faith would mean the immediate failure of his campaign. But what if he’s not playing politics? What if he genuinely believes what he wrote? This second explanation, then, is that he was using the holiness of the Western Wall as other pilgrims do, to send a personal plea to the universe’s sovereign.

The possibility should deeply disturb all rational people. It ought, in fact, to make Obama’s more thoughtful supporters reconsider their November votes. To demonstrate why, we need only play a brief thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that the god Obama hopes to be an instrument of doesn’t exist. This would mean that any guidance he thinks he’s receiving from that deity in fact is a product of his own mind. That, in and of itself, is fine. We want our leaders to act on their own thoughts. That’s why we elect one President over another. But if Obama is acting through his own volition but believes he’s acting on the will of his god, then no amount of evidence and argumentation will sway him from his path. What is evidence in the face of omniscience? What is argumentation in the face of omnibenevolence? This is a terrifying prospect. And it’s one we’ve already rejected when the instrument of divine will is George W. Bush. Why should we give Obama a theological free pass when his professed belief is just as dangerous? Let us not forget that we are currently in a war, justified or not, with fanatics who themselves act in accordance with the will of their god.

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Thoughts on “The Dark Knight”

Thoughts after seeing it: Excellent. Terrific movie (though not the #1 best movie of all time, as it currently sits on IMDB). The Joker was perfect. Different, but fantastically scary in his own way, and easily now in that top pantheon of movie villains along with Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader. My favorite moment was probably the pencil trick, which was simply awesome, shocking, and wonderfully establishing-of-character. I loved that they played up the we-need-each-other angle of the Joker/Batman relationship.

Only negatives were, first, Batman just doesn’t fit as well into the environment as the villains. He looks like a movie superhero instead of a realistic part of the environment. I don’t know if there’s any way to fix that in live action. Maybe Batman can only ever achieve total verisimilitude when rendered by pencil and ink. Second, Nolan still seems to want to keep Bruce Wayne grumpy but essentially sane. He’s not. He’s a rich kid who witnessed his family’s murder up close and messy and now he dresses up and fights crime. He’s at least as nuts as all the guys he cases. Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum nails this, and I missed seeing it in the movie.

Still, is was a great flick and firmly the best Batman on film.

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What Atheism Offers: Life’s Mysteries

One of the profound and fundamental misunderstandings theists have of atheists is the belief that the latter lead a cold and narrow existence, unconcerned with the mysteries of the universe. Anything that can’t be immediately, rationally known must be rejected. Wonder is sapped from life. What’s happening when this view is articulated, however, is an unfortunate assumption about the very idea of mystery. The theist defines mystery as “the unknown filled by unfounded imagination.” The atheist sees it differently.

Analogies often best illustrate distinctions, so imagine a mystery novel constructed from the theist’s perspective. A body is found in an alley, shot through the heart. The detective called in clears away the uniformed officers, squats next to the deceased, and inspects the wound. He gathers details — short range, low caliber — and announces, “This is clearly the work of a goblin, armed with a wand, and angry with the victim because he failed to perform the proper appeasement ritual.” With that, the detective stands up, gets in his car, and heads home to perform the ritual himself, so as not to suffer the same fate.

Besides being awfully short, this would make for a rather frustrating novel. Yes, the story the detective has told can be made to fit the facts — though there are some inconsistencies — and a large mythology exists going back countless generations about goblins, magical deaths, and mystic rites designed to prevent them. In short, we can’t entirely rule out the detective’s explanation. But does that make it valid? Does it warrant a satisfying “The End” and a year long wait for the next book in the series? Of course not.

Why, then, should we reject the detective’s theory? Why shouldn’t we afford it the same respect we’d give to one that included a .22 pistol, an unhappy wife, and an overheard fight the night before? Because, when examining theories about the world, we naturally demand evidence. The goblin story isn’t good enough because it has a strong air of simply being made up. While no facts immediately dismiss it, no facts can be found to explicitly support it, either. And we’d hardly claim that the detective who won’t accept goblins doesn’t appreciate mysteries, is cynical, or is intellectually arrogant.

The atheist is no different from the modern detective. Rather than investigating corpses, though, he examines the awesome beauty and wonder of the universe itself. How did this all come into being? Why am I here? What should I do now that I am? What is right, what is wrong? This are huge questions and ones we may never answer. Yet this doesn’t mean they should be approached from a religious standpoint or seen as gaps in knowledge that can only be filled by unfounded imagination.

For theists, the answers are easy. How did the universe get here? God did it. How did life come into being? God. How are we to live? The son of god told us twenty centuries ago. The believer can spend a fulfilling lifetime trying to understand god but that doesn’t make his answers anything more than made up gap filling. He’s posited goblins with wands and accuses anyone who rejects these little monsters of being elitist and intellectually overreaching.

The theist rejects the atheist’s stance, saying that the only honest position is agnosticism, because we can’t know the absolute truth of god’s non-existence. Here, again, we are presented with a misunderstanding of terminology. An atheist rarely makes the flat out claim “There is no god.” Rather, he says, “I don’t believe in god.” An agnostic, on the other hand, says, “I’m not sure whether I believe in god. I could go either way.” Therefore, far from being an intellectually arrogant argument, the atheist is merely saying “Nobody has a good reason for believing in god and, without reasons, we shouldn’t believe things about the nature of reality.” This has been the claim of scientists and philosophers since these fields arose from the sea of human ignorance in distant antiquity. The theist soundly rejects this tradition. His argument, when stripped of its theological veneer, becomes nothing more than “Because we can’t know everything, I can believe anything.”

And that’s not an acknowledgment of mystery. It’s only muddy logic.

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What Atheism Offers: Justifying a Life’s Purpose

There exists a need among theists to justify life’s purpose. Far from being content with self made goals, with personal achievements set by the individual for his own existential benefit, they desire an authority handing down purpose, telling them this is how they ought to live or this is the proper role they are to play. For the atheist, the mere facts that he is here, existing, and that his existence is finite are purpose enough indeed. With one life, the drive becomes to make the most of it we are capable. Thus, the non-believer can answer history’s most asked question by saying, “The purpose of life is to live the best life each and every one of us can.”

Why should god be included in this consideration? Why can’t the question end there, with each human defining for himself what the best life looks like and taking whatever steps he is willing to get there? For the theist, however, this solution is not freedom but nihilism. A self generated purpose is no purpose at all. It is emptiness and, with it, despair. If nobody made me, why am I here? If nobody wants me to follow a given path, why should I follow any at all?

This is the same argument from consequences so often hurled at evolution: if we’re all just the product of random chance, what’s the point? If the universe is without a creator, then, for theist, we are all horribly, cripplingly alone. Yet, as an atheist, I am not alone. I have a wife I love and close friends and family I can share my successes and failures with. I’m on a planet with billions like me: humans living out their own tiny blinks of time in the same universe both awesome and mysterious. Making right by that world and the people in it is my purpose, one I can feel the profound weight of and the grand and breezy freedom it allows me to define exactly what “right” means for me. While I may be the result of the very non-random process of natural selection acting upon an arbitrary base of matter and mutation, the joy I feel when I’m with people I love and the sense of accomplishment I get when I fulfill my goals are far from random.

What role can god even play in any of this? Let us say there exists a supreme being who planted in my head the notion that I ought to live the best life I know how. Does he tell me what that means? If he does, it’s in contradictory forms, for what is best within a Catholic world view is very different from best for a buddhist or best for a Wahhabi muslim. Without definite selection criteria between the faiths, criteria that can themselves be verified without appeal to one of those faiths, how am I ever to know what is the best life? Because the specifics of the world’s religions are, therefore, of little use, I’m left only with what feels right to me. I can seek the advice of others — and I would be prudent to do so — but even they are in same boat as myself, advocating rightness to them as they understand it. Thus the existence of god, so far as purpose goes, is of pitifully little value, with the experience of man carries incredible weight.

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Intelligent Design’s Logical Fallacies

The many articles on Newsvine regarding creationism and intelligent design have sparked a good deal of comments from proponents of those views, several expressing the same tired arguments for why creationism ought to be afforded time in science classrooms across the country. Primarily, they argue that, because the evidence for evolution isn’t convincing (to them, that is — nearly all scientists find it overwhelming), evolution must be wrong and, because it’s wrong, intelligent design must be right. Clearly, these people haven’t spent much time in an introductory logic course, because they’re snagging themselves on fallacies left and right.

First we have the False Dilemma:

A limited number of options (usually two) is given, while in reality there are more options. A false dilemma is an illegitimate use of the “or” operator.

Either evolution is right or God created life. Those are the options given by the creationist. But, of course, there a good deal more possibilities. Maybe there are physical laws we have yet to discover that cause atoms to arrange themselves into living beings. These laws could be a natural as gravity and would in no way require the presence of a creator. I’m sure anyone with even a little imagination can come up with more scenarios that don’t include God. This is a False Dilemma because it is perfectly reasonable for someone to reject both evolution and intelligent design. They are far from the only two possibilities.

The problem is, this is would mean an end to most creationist arguments. They don’t actually have any evidence for creationism — except the very weak one from complexity I examine below — and so are forced to construct an artificial binary and then proceed to attack one side of it.

And then there’s what I’ll term the Lottery Ticket Fallacy. It goes something like this: Let’s say there’s a huge pile of pieces of paper, each with a one-hundred digit number on it. You reach into the pile and pull one out at random. Looking at it, you exclaim, “Wow, providence must be at work because, out of all these possibilities, I happened to get this number.” It’s a silly reaction, right? There’s nothing special about your number except that it happens to be the one you got. You couldn’ve seen the same providence at work no matter which number you drew.

How is this similar to creationism? Take this comment, posted on one of my other websites:

Well, if our own bodies and the very planet we live on is not evidence enough of a supreme power that created us it should at least be enough to be accepted as a credible theory.

(A note: Here again we have the creationist mixing up the meanings of “theory.” In every day life, it means a guess: “I have a theory that the reason the Patriots lost last week is because…” In science, on the other hand, a theory is considerably more rigorous. Please, if you don’t fully understand the difference, read up on it. This is the single most common creationist argument against evolution and it’s also by far the dumbest.)

What’s going on here? Basically, he’s claiming that because the world exists and because he finds that fact miraculous, there must be an intelligence behind it. How else to explain getting this reality as opposed to some other one? Here’s how:

There is some evidence to support that our universe goes through cycles. It expands and collapses, over and over again. Each time, it is likely that conditions are slightly different. So it is certainly possible that there have been millions (or billions or trillions) of prior universes that didn’t have the capacity for something like us. And now that Universe 1,000,001 comes along and makes humans, it must be God at work. But what about the other beings that probably existed in those other universes? Did they think the same thing? Did they find their universes required a creator because their own existence was miraculous?

To take it a step further, there’s no reason to suppose that ours is the only universe. There could be a trillion-billion others out there that don’t have the conditions for life. The simple fact is that even if you take an enormous number of dice, so long as your roll them a sufficiently enormous number of times, eventually you’ll end up with whatever total or sequence you’re looking for. There just isn’t any evidence that there’s anything particularly special about this universe.

Creationists can’t address either of these questions because they can’t give positive arguments for the existence of God that don’t rest upon similar lines of reasoning. God has to be taken on faith and can, therefore, never be disproved, just as he can never be proved. Evolution, on the other hand, can be easily disproved. All it would take would be finding a skeleton of human or house cat below the KT Boundary.

I’m all for people arguing against evolution. That’s the nature of science. It’s clear that almost every theory (and that’s theory in the scientific sense, kids) we’ve held throughout human history has been shown to be inadequate. There’s no reason to believe our current ones won’t look just as silly or basic a couple hundred years from now. Evolution has more evidence going for it than almost any other theory creationists have little trouble with (such as Newtonian physics, the Theory of Relativity, etc.), but it is singled out because it conflicts with a religious world view. Creationists don’t make up their minds after carefully parsing the available sides, theories, and evidence. They believe what they believe and attack anything that might point to the Bible not being true.

Like flat earthers and anti-Copernicans, we need only wait a few hundred years for their views to be widely derided as nothing more than religious dogma. Until then, though, we can sit back and at least make them learn a little about basic logic.

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Abandoning Superstition: Why I Don’t Believe In God

If you take a look at the history of ideas from the Enlightenment onward, an unmistakable trend is the steady abandonment of superstition. Weather patterns aren’t caused by raucous spirits. Diseases aren’t the work of angry spouses and their witch doctor friends. We break it to children in sympathetic voices that Santa Claus doesn’t wiggle down chimneys and the Tooth Fairy doesn’t break into bedrooms at night. Few of us care if a black cat meanders across the sidewalk in front of us or if the big exam falls on Friday the 13th. On the whole, then, we’re a reasonable bunch. So why do so many of us persist in believing in what the biologist, Richard Dawkins, has called “an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, [and] can give you advice?”

It’s that sort of god I’m talking about. The personal one, the big guy who hangs out in heaven, watches everything you do, and adds spice to your life when you need it. This is the god the muscled man at the gym was talking about last week when I overheard him explaining to a woman about how his life had been so terrible lately. The thing was, he said, he knew he was going to get through it because “the good Lord never gives you more than you can handle.” So not only do Americans believe in this all powerful imaginary friend, but they’re also convinced he’s the one making their spouses leave, their backs give out, and their children use drugs. That god, the omniscient player of the Sims, is the concept I have so much trouble believing.

It’s important, before going too much further, to lay out rather exactly the point I’m trying to make. Namely, I want to claim that I don’t believe in God, and neither should you. This is quite different from asserting the non-existence of God. To say “there is no God” is a fool’s utterance. How would we know? If God can do everything people say he can, I bet he’d be pretty good at hiding, too. We can’t look everywhere for him and there’s a good chance we wouldn’t even know if we’d found him. In this sense, God is like a ghost. I don’t believe in ghosts but I can’t say with total certainty that they don’t exist.

The reason I don’t believe in God is because I’ve never found a convincing reason to do so. Every argument made to me has fallen prey to counter examples, alternate constructions, and problems of logic. What I’m going to do in this essay is run through one of the more frequent positive arguments for God I’ve heard and show why it shouldn’t convince anybody that he’s up there watching over us.

That most common of arguments goes like this: “I don’t need evidence for the existence of God. I have faith.” That’s a terrible reason for believing anything and I’m going to explain why, but let me first take a couple of steps back and introduce the topic of Phenomenal Conservatism. See, for philosophers, knowledge is a sticky concept. If you don’t believe me, grab an introduction to epistemology textbook and prepare the have your simplest assumptions thoroughly rocked. The issue Phenomenal Conservatism want to solve is the problem of justified belief. When are we justified in believing something? Justified means roughly that it is acceptable to believe it. So if I’m standing in front of a table with a cougar sitting in the middle of it and I turn to you and say, “I believe there’s a bullfrog on that table,” you could rightly question my justification for that belief. The trouble is most knowledge stems from our senses and those can be deceived. The most recognizable form of this argument is the brain in a vat thought experiment, which was the basis of the central conceit of the Matrix movies.

Phenomenal Conservatism jumps into this fray by providing the following basis for justification.

  1. If it seems to me that P
  2. and there are no defeaters for P
  3. then I am justified in believing P

What I want to argue is that the faith argument is a specific form of Phenomenal Conservatism and, therefore, collapses when facing the arguments traditionally used against its parent.

So what’s wrong with Phenomenal Conservatism? Well, think about it for a moment. If you follow through on the logic, you’ll see that it can be used to justify belief in pretty much anything. For sample, let’s say I believe in unicorns. Am I justified in do so? It does seem to me that unicorns exist. And there clearly aren’t any defeaters for this position. After all, nobody has conclusively disproved the wonderful tales of brilliant and beautiful horses frolicking in the woods, somehow managing not to get the the narwhal tusks sticking out of their heads caught on every low branch.

And there lies the problem. Phenomenal Conservatism, as a criteria for justification, is way too powerful. It’s the reverse scorched earth approach to epistemology. Don’t want to risk throwing out beliefs that are justified? Then just go out and justify everything. This sort of thinking isn’t only sloppy–it can be quite dangerous.

For example, consider the following situation proposed by the philosopher, Michael Tooley. Let’s say I believe there is a supreme being who has the power to put me up in a nice loft in downtown Paradise after I die. He’ll give me wine and women and all the sitcoms on TV won’t have laugh tracks. Sounds like a good deal, right? There’s a catch, of course. You see, to land this righteous, posthumous pad, I have to go out and kill people who don’t believe in my omnipotent patron. If I don’t slaughter at least twenty heathens by the time I kick the bucket, I’m going to some place far worse than Paradise.

It certainly could seem to someone that the above is the case. And there aren’t any defeaters. How could there be? This makes the above belief justified according to Phenomenal Conservatism. But we don’t want that. We’ve had enough people killed by lunatics who hold fast to similar beliefs to make it more than worth our time to show how they are in fact not justified in flying planes into buildings and chopping the heads off of Wall Street Journal reporters.

So Phenomenal Conservatism isn’t good enough. It’s too easy to justify even the most erroneous and idiotic beliefs. Now think about the argument from faith for a moment. Isn’t it more or less the same thing? I have faith in God which means it seems to me that God exists. Furthermore, nobody has disproved the existence of God. Therefore I’m justified in believing in God. End of debate. Let’s all send our money to the 700 Club.

Wanting to believe something isn’t a good enough reason for actually believing it. I want to believe I will win the Powerball lottery next week without even having to buy a ticket. Maybe such a belief is fine because it’s rather innocuous. The trouble starts when I act upon that belief. I throw away all my existing furniture because, you know, I’ll have way better stuff next week. Who needs a Sears bought sofa when you’ll be able to afford the entire Ethan Allen store in seven days?

Or maybe I believe that good Christians can cure their cancer through prayer. I tell all the men in my congregation who are being slowly killed by tumors in their prostates to stop writing checks to doctors and, instead, write them to the 700 Club. And all you women with breast cancer? You ought to do the same. After all, Jesus healed those lepers. And, dammit, I’ve got faith he’ll do the same for you.

Belief in God is a big deal. It makes people radically change the way they live. It informs their sense of morality, for better or, just as often, for worse. And when faith in involved, there isn’t any way to question the justification for hatred of gays, the slaughter of non-Muslims, or terrible gospel rock.

I don’t believe in God because I don’t have a reason to. I understand how life can evolve without divine guidance. I don’t feel a need to hold fast to the idea that my consciousness will continue after I die. I have a firm grasp of the secular grounding of morals. I don’t need Dawkins’ imaginary friend.

In short, I don’t believe in the supernatural because it all strikes me as more than a little made up. Without hard evidence to the contrary, I don’t see how any reasonable person can think that this last weekend celebrated the birth of a guy who literally raised the dead, turned water to wine, magically healed the sick, and, if he’d had half a mind to, probably could’ve shriveled penises with the best of those crazy African witch doctors we’re always reading about in the international editions.

I mean, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.