Archive for October, 2010

Enlightning Bolts – 10.31.2010

Happy Halloween everyone! Here are some links to things I’ve been wanting to blog about but haven’t found the time.

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The local skeptics group had their first SkeptiCamp. I didn’t make it out but they’re posting videos of their talks on the Winnipeg Skeptics Blog. There are three so far and I believe more to come.

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This Church has a built-in dinosaur – and I don’t mean the Ken Hamm sadle-wearing kind.

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Here‘s the blog of the 15-year-old Rhys Morgan, who is suffering from Crohn’s disease, and it bravely (and effectively) fighting against quacks who are selling bleach (BLEACH!!!) to Crohn’s sufferers and claiming that it’s a miracle cure.

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This guy saved another man’s life using physics. Science!

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Old Weather is a cool citizen science project that allows you help transcribe WWI-era ships’ weather observations to help build climate models.

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And, just because, here are some pictures of the recent snowfall here and the pumpkins I carved:

The Discovery Institute Asks New Atheists What They Believe

In case you haven’t heard of them, the Discovery Institute is an organization that pushes the idea of intelligent design creationism. They have a blog and it’s pretty hilarious to read…anyways today they had an article that caught my eye called “What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?” I’m always interested to see what theists are telling us we believe, because sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised to see myself accurately represented by somebody who doesn’t agree with me.

Well in this case the author of the article (Michael Egnor), instead of telling people what New Atheists believe, decided to ask us instead! I think that’s a great approach, although I’m suspicious of its sincerity, coming from the Discovery Institute. Nonetheless I think It’ll be fun to answer the questions, so here goes! You can read the article here to get some context for why he’s asking these questions.

Egnor says:

I want to learn more about what New Atheists really believe. So I’m asking Moran a few questions, although other atheists (Myers, Coyne, Novella, Shallit, etc**) are invited to reply on their blogs, and I will answer.

**etc, that’s me!

And he has some rules for the answers:

1) Answers can’t be limited to the shortcomings of theism (e.g. ‘So who caused God?’). I’m looking for an exposition of New Atheist belief, not a criticism of theist belief. Mutual criticism will come once all beliefs are on the table. If New Atheist belief can only be expressed by negation of the beliefs of others, just say so.
2) Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply” gambit is fine. If you think that a question is nonsense, say so.
3) No changing the subject. New questions are welcome, once the old questions are addressed.
4) The Law of Snark Conservation applies; thoughtful courteous answers get thoughtful courteous replies.

Number 1 is just silly, Egnor must know that atheism is entirely a response to theism, it’s not a belief system. To try to stay within this rule I’ll just talk about what I believe, but I’m not going to pretend that I’m speaking for New Atheist beliefs, because there’s no such thing. Number 2, I don’t know what the Courtier’s Reply is so I’ll just ignore that one…and 3 and 4 sound fine. Now, on to the questions:

1) Why is there anything? *shrug* dunno. Does there have to be a reason? I’m just glad I’m here!

2) What caused the Universe? Good question…I’m sure it was some kind of quantum something or other.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature? I don’t know the answer to this one either, but I assume that if there weren’t regularity in our universe, we wouldn’t be around to ask the question.

4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist? I had to go on Wikipedia for this one and they all seem alright to me, but I’m not so sure about the final cause. I don’t really see the point of it, as it’s pretty subjective and there isn’t even a final cause for everything…I don’t understand what it’s supposed to imply, but I only spent 5 minutes on Wikipedia reading over the description.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence? I’m not sure I get the question, but I suppose it may be because there are so many variables that we’re faced with every day that it’s not possible to be completely objective. We have to form opinions and biases to survive otherwise we’d be paralyzed with indecision. (I have a feeling that question went right over my head, but whatever).

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something? Huh? Is this asking why do humans have intentions? I guess because it makes us more likely to survive…I have no idea what this is supposed to be asking…philosophy mumbo-jumbo just does not penetrate my thick skull. Why is this relevant to atheism anyways?

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.) There’s no such thing as “Moral Law”, but I think that morality is an artifact of nature – humans are social beings, and because we live in groups and cooperate it has made us a very successful species. We need our social ties, so it makes more sense for us to be good to each other. Our sense of right and wrong would have arisen through natural selection, because anti-social behaviours would lead to someone being less likely to reproduce. That’s how my simple mind sums it up, but there are some fantastic books out there about  evolution and morality. I just finished Born to be Good by Dacher Keltner, I recommend that one.

8) Why is there evil? Because there’s no benevolent god out there keeping us from harm.

None of those questions addressed the difference between the “old atheists” and the “new atheists.” All atheists don’t believe in god, but the new atheists feel like atheism is something worth sharing. The above questions have nothing to do with atheism, they just strike me as an attempt to bait atheists into answering in the wrong way so that Egnor can come back with “that’s where god fits in.”

Thinking About Religulous on the 2nd Anniversary of my Atheism

I realized today that it’s October, which means another year has passed since I gave up my faith. It’s embarrassing to think about now (because it’s really not that great of a movie), but seeing Religulous was what put me on the path to being an atheist. It was the first time that I was exposed to something that challenged my faith, and it really got me thinking.

I remember sitting in the car afterwards and talking to my husband about the movie – I have no idea what I was saying to him, but I remember getting a little choked up because I was so excited. I realized that I was alone in my head, there was no god in there monitoring my thoughts, I was free to explore ideas and to be who I wanted to be. It was a great feeling. (I talked about the scene that made a big impact on me in last year’s anniversary post).

After we got home from the movie I went on the internet because I wanted to see who else was excited about this life-changing movie, and since I had no inkling that there was such thing as an atheist forum or blog, I went to a religious forum to see what they were saying. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see negative opinions of the movie, but I was, so I decided to sign in and do some trolling (I can’t stand trolling, but I was feeling rebellious that night).

Today when I remembered that it’s been about 2 years since then, I decided that I’d try to find that forum post to see what I said…and guess what? I did! Woo! Here’s what I wrote, with my responses in red:

Hi Everyone,

I’m a former member of this forum. That’s a lie. I stopped posting here when I began to become disillusioned with Catholocism and Christianity in general. Lies, I was never a member…at least I don’t remember ever joining it… I decided to come back for a visit to see what was being said about the new movie Religulous, and after reading some of the threads about it, I thought I would offer up my perspective of the movie.

I attended Church with my family since I was small, and up until fairly recently I went to a Bible study once a week. True. But gradually as I grew up I began to look at the world through a more critical eye. Nope, I was only just beginning to use my critical eye. I was always very naive and quick to accept what was told to me, but I now know to question things and research things. By now, I meant literally that night, when I realized that if I researched my religion it wouldn’t be so convincing anymore. I don’t want to be a sheep that’s shepherded through life. You go girl!

So with my new outlook on life, I began to question everything, so naturally I began to question my religious beliefs and my faith. I began to see that the circles I was in were full of judgment and shame, and I began to realize that I didn’t believe what I said I believed anymore. I guess I made up this crap about my long history of questioning my faith because I thought it would be more credible than saying that I had just watched a silly movie that convinced me that I had been mistaken about god for my whole life. At that point I realized that a movie was a poor reason to stop believing, but I didn’t let my learning stop there and I’m confident now that I have solid reasons for not believing in any gods.

However it’s not easy to drop religion out of your life. I have dropped it out of my heart, still using the religious lingo and I’m much happier for it, but since a lot of my friends and family have these beliefs, I have felt like I need to hide the fact that I’m now Atheist it makes me cringe to see myself capitalizing “atheist” from them. Sadly it’s still true that I hide my atheism from certain friends and family members. People make you feel ashamed. I don’t think anyone could make me feel ashamed for my atheism now – I’m proud to have put my faith behind me.
 
So the reason I named this thread “Thanks to Bill Maher” is that he has created a movie that is telling people like me that it’s okay not to believe. Hearing that it’s okay to not believe really was novel to me then.

If you have not seen the movie, it is about Maher’s personal rejection of religion. The theme of the movie is to show people that it is responsible to have doubt and to question things. One of my favourite quotes from the movie is the lady that says “I don’t know anything about politics, but I’ll vote for George Bush because of his faith”…well look where that’s gotten us.

Maher questions the doctrine and the beliefs of all religions. This is something that’s a major faux-pas pretty much anywhere you go, but it’s really sad that people should be made to feel like they can’t question these things.

This movie has given me confidence in myself so that I can come out of the closet as an ex-Catholic, and I don’t see anything wrong with it…not to mention it was very funny and entertaining! Damn, I still haven’t come out of the closet…well I guess people realize I’m not a Catholic anymore, but many must think I’m still a Christian.

I hope that came out cohesively…but I welcome questions. Thanks for reading 

I was super excited to see how people would respond to that, and I was hoping to engage in my first debate with religious people as a newly minted atheist (actually I don’t think I really considered myself an atheist at that point, it wasn’t until after I had read some Hitchens that I really embracedthe term).

The first response to my post was this:

personally maher has never come across as funny to me, but everyones idea of humor is different.

from the previews and interviews ive seen him do on the movie it seems more like an attempt to evangelize people to the religion of athesim.

finally, i’m sorry that you doubt the faith. i’ll throw some extra prayers your way.

Here’s how I responded:

I’ve never seen Maher in anything else, this was true, I guess Americans must be more familiar with him than I was…I vaguely recognized him but wasn’t aware of his anti-religious comedy or his show on HBO so I don’t know how he is in other contexts, but in this movie he was funny.

How is evangelizing people to atheism any worse than evangelizing people to the Christian faith? I didn’t know enough about atheism at this point to think to point out that it’s not a religion, but I still think that I had an okay point here.

I don’t need your prayers…I appreciate your intentions, but they’re wasted on me. I think it must have felt really good to write this – prayer no longer meant anything to me.

The next bunch of responses were so stupid, and someone caught that I was trolling, so I never responded again. Someone thought I might work PR for Bill Maher HA! and another didn’t believe me that I didn’t know who Maher was…I thought that was a really odd accusation. Another responded that it’s not okay to not believe, which struck me as so closed-minded. I’m sure that’s when I started seeking out atheist communities on the internet, and I’m so glad I did!

This is long so I’ll wrap it up, but if you’re curious here’s the thread that I quoted from above, on the Catholic Answers forum. I jumped in on Page 7 and my user name was “MyUserName”…so creative! Here are screen caps of my posts (click to expand):

Responding to a Christian’s Arguments for God

Hello everyone! In the comments on one of my previous posts, commenter sabepashubbo (I’ll call him Sabe) offered to give me his case for god, and I accepted by saying that I would blog about it. He dutifully emailed me his case for his god, and I haven’t found the time to respond (sincere apologies Sabe!). Now I’m on a 2+ hour flight, so it seems like a good time. And this way I think it will be better because I don’t have access to wifi up here in the air, so all of the responses will be mine alone whereas normally I may have used other peoples’ material in the formulation of my answers. I’m going to put Sabe’s entire email here so that you can read it in full if you wish, and my reactions will be in red.

Thanks for taking the time to hear me out. I feel like I ought to break this up into several parts, because each one can be dissected. However, as a whole, I feel like it makes the case for the existence of God not only compelling, but the most plausible perspective to have. Although I’m sure you’ve heard most of this before, I would love to see what questions you have and answer them to the best of my knowledge.

I would like to start with the Kalam cosmological argument. No doubt you’ve heard this one several times. I have indeed, and it has never been even remotely convincing to me. This deductive argument is as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. Well, there has to have been something, somewhere along the way that didn’t have a cause, that was just always here, right? So there is at least one thing that didn’t have a cause, whether that be God or the universe or the multiverse or whatever.
  2. The universe began to exist. Sure.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause. Yup I suppose so.

Why did the universe begin to exist? Damned if I know! This is a logical conclusion based on the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which at its lay conclusion indicates that the universe is moving gradually to a state of non-existence. So if the universe has a definite end, it must naturally have a beginning, for nothing in the natural world has been shown to have an end without a beginning. Well I think we already pretty much know that our universe had a beginning and will come to an end, I don’t get what this has to do with godso far.

So what was responsible for this beginning? Don’t know…we can’t observe outside of our universe, so it’s kind of impossible to do anything other than theorize about what we think might have set the Big Bang in motion, isn’t it? Well, for starters we must look at what our universe is doing now. Thanks to Hubble, we know now that the universe is expanding. So if we use infinite regress and look backwards at our universe, it would collapse in on intself. So our universe must have some “ex nihilo,” or “out of nothing.” I’m no physicist or anything remotely resembling a physicist, but I believe they most commonly say that our universe was in one state, and then the Big Bang changed it into a different state. So it’s not that there was nothing and then something just popped into existence, rather there was something, and that turned into something else.

The question then becomes this, “Is this possible naturally?” The earliest cosmic event we know of is the Big Bang. Of course it was, because time began at the Big Bang. On a recent episode of the Atheist Experience they were talking about this, it was pretty entertaining – how since time began with the Big Bang it’s meaningless to talk about “before” the Big Bang…you should check it out. Sabe maybe you should call that show and try to make your case for God on the air! According to Wikipedia, “Without any evidence associated with the earliest instant of the expansion, the Big Bang theory cannot and does not provide any explanation for such an inition condition; rather, it describes and explains the general evolution of the universe since that instant.” The Big Bang is not determined to be the beginning of everything, so that’s not the answer. But we do have it on pretty good evidence that the Big Bang did, in fact, happen. So what caused the Big Bang? We don’t know…yet! Although I have a more-than-sneaking suspicion that “I don’t know” isn’t acceptable to you – you need to fill in that gap with your god.

The best current scientific hypothesis is that “virtual” particles pop into and out of existence based on quantum fluctuations, and that this is what happened to create the Big Bang. However, there are several major flaws with this concept:

  1. If these are “virtual” particles, how can we determine their mass?
  1. How can virtual particles pop into and out of existence? Can’t this be explained justas easily as transfer of energy? How does nothing become something and then nothing agin, and why hasn’t this happened to our universe? And what does this say about mass that is no longer transferrable (e.g. black holes)?
  2. These current quantum fluctuations discussed are extremely minute exchanges. Like, inside of a proton minute. These fluctuations have not been determined to exist in larger such entities. The Big Bang at its very essence is the opposite of minute, so to say that these types of quantum fluctuations cause the biggest explosion in the history of the universe is a HUGE leap to make; a leap of faith exponentially larger than belief in any God, I would submit.

Honestly I don’t understand any of this. I’m not going to pretend to have any kind of notion of what quantum physics implies or what virtual particles are…my brain just won’t have any of it. It doesn’t penetrate my skull. But I’m going to stick up for the theoretical physicists and say that their hypotheses don’t require the faith that a god does, because they test their ideas using mathematics and by trying to see if they can make predictions based on their hypotheses.

So there are clearly issues with the current scientific view, though even leading scientists (e.g. Lawrence Krauss) still claim to have no answer to the question about how the universe began.

Yup Lawrence Krauss claims to have no answer to how the universe began – this is honest. Krauss doesn’t need an explanation. He’s fine with saying “I don’t know, lets wait and see.” As am I.

Now, theism (and specifically Christian theism) has put forth a view that the universe came from nothing, which is consistent with current science. Seriously? Theism is consistent with science? Give me a break. Science actually makes an effort to provide good, solid explanations for things and the Bible has a story that a child could writeabout how God did magic and voila! Universe! It’s not even on the same level. This view has been around for a minimum of 4,000 years, written in the Bible. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been around, it’s just a story in a book. There are religions older than 4,000 years, why is the Bible story more convincing or trustworthy? And this answer has gone unchanged throughout the course of human history. Whether the Bible is factual or not is not at play here; only that this theory was written down in it is relevant.

So if there is a viewpoint that lines up with the best current science we have, and has been around for 4,000 years, doesn’t that make it the most plausible worldview? No! It doesn’t line up with science, aside from the part about there being no universe one day, and a universe the next. Weak. The phrase I use often is this: An answer with some science is better than no answer with some science. I am not saying that you can never be an atheist; just that if you are using reason to place your bets with the most plausible worldview, you must be a theist until science is able to come up with conclusive evidence for a better answer. I submit that it will not happen. But based on the information we have today, theism is the best explanation for the existence of the universe.

I completely fail to see where you provided any argument that theism is the most plausible worldview. Why should I be a theist just because science doesn’t yet have all of the answers? I don’t see any value in supplementing gaps in knowledge with fairy tales.

Using things like the Kalam cosmological argument is just playing games with words. If you really want to show that your god is real, you’re going to have to gather up some real evidence. You believe that the Bible lines up with science, but I think you need to thing more critically about what the Bible actually says compared to the Big Bang theory. Why do you find the Bible to be such a reliable source of information? Why aren’t other holy books just as reliable in your eyes?

It would also be useful to know exactly what this god that you’re arguing for is. You need to come up with a definition for your god, because there are so many different ideas about what the Christian god is. What characteristics does this god have? How do you know this god has these characteristics? Are any of these characteristics testable? If so, have the tests been done?

I think that a good place to start would be why you started believing in the first place. I seriously doubt that Kalam made you realize that the Christian god is real, so what was it that convinced you that there is a god? Maybe that would convince me too?

I’m disappointed that all you really did in presenting your case for god was point out places where we don’t have all of the answers, and fill in those holes with your god. You didn’t provide good reasons why your god is a good fit for these unknowns in science, I wasn’t even able to get a sense of what kind of thing your god is. It seems like you’re arguing for a deist god with Kalam, but yet you’re a Christian. There’s a disconnect there.

Oh My Glee! Atheism on TV!

First off, I’ve been working on a couple of longer blog posts, including responses to some email feedback I’ve gotten lately, but life has been crazy and I haven’t had a chance to finish anything yet. But I just finished watching the most recent episode of Glee and I can’t help but write about it.

Spoilers Ahead! So STOP READING NOW if you’re planning on seeing the episode called “Grilled Cheesus”!

I was a little bit worried when at the beginning of the episode, football player Finn makes a “Grilled Cheesus” and suddenly believes in Jesus. He suggests to the glee club that they dedicate their songs to God. Normally when this kind of thing happens in TV land everyone goes along with it and has a fun time sharing their faiths, and my atheism isn’t represented. But there were so many moments in this show that I have to quote because I was so excited to see a popular character in a popular TV show say what I feel when it comes to religion.

In response to Finn’s suggestion to pay tribute to Jesus, Kurt says:

Sorry, but if I wanted to pay tribute to Jesus I would go to church. And the reason I don’t go to church is because most churches don’t think very much of gay people…or women…or science.

Yes! Oh yes…

When Kurt’s dad has a heart attack I was worried that this would become a story about Kurt being converted by his classmates, and about their prayers reviving his dad. It was soo not, yay!

Mercedes, in response to hearing the news, sings a song to Kurt about turning to God in hard times. He responds…

Kurt: Thank you Mercedes, your voice is stunning but I don’t believe in God.

Tina: Wait, what?

Kurt: You’ve all professed your beliefs I’m just stating mine. I think God is kinda like Santa Claus for adults. Otherwise God’s kind of a jerk, isn’t he? Well he makes me gay and then has his followers going around telling me it’s something that I chose.  As if someone would choose to be mocked every single day of their life. And right now I don’t want a heavenly father. I want my real one back.

Mercedes: But how do you know for sure? I mean you can’t prove that there’s no god.

Kurt: You can’t prove that there isn’t a magic teapot floating around on the dark side of the moon with a dwarf inside of it that reads romance novels and shoots lightning out of its boobs but it seems pretty unlikely doesn’t it?

Brittany: Is god an evil dwarf?

Oh yes folks, Russel’s teapot made it onto a primetime show about show choir! Kurt’s exiting line in this scene was nice too: “You all can believe whatever you want to, but I can’t believe something I don’t.” Go Kurt! “I appreciate your thoughts, but I don’t want your prayers.”

Next, everybody’s favourite cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester finds out about the breach in the wall of separation between church and state happening in the choir room. She gives a nice little lesson on the establishment clause, and then later she gives some nice responses to guidance counsellor Emma’s poor arguments in favour of letting the glee club keep pushing their religion on the unwilling Kurt:

Emma: What is wrong with you? … There is a boy in that glee club that might lose his father. How could you get in the way when the only thing anybody is trying to do is give that poor child just a little bit of comfort?

Sue: … Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, isn’t a moral thing to do. It’s cruel.

Emma: Don’t you think that’s just a little bit arrogant?

Sue: It’s as arrogant as telling someone how to believe in God and if they don’t accept it, no matter how open-hearted or honest their dissent, they’re going to hell. That doesn’t sound very Christian does it?

Emma: Well if that’s what you believe that’s fine. But please keep it to yourself.

Sue: So long as you do the same. That kid could lose his father at any moment and you should start preparing him for that.

I was mad when the other students refused to listen to Kurt’s wishes and prayed over his dad, but I was pleased that he wasn’t pressured into belief. In the end, even after going to a lively church service with Mercedes, he states that he doesn’t believe in God, he believes in his relationship with his Dad. It’s a very touching moment.

A shining moment also comes when Finn, who started the whole religion theme with his Grilled Cheesus, realizes that he was making things happen for himself, rather than getting help from God. He sings R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and then says “I used to thing God was up there looking over me, and now I’m not so sure.” Simple, honest, thank you Finn!

After this episode I feel justified in my deep love for Glee. I can’t wait to see if they continue to explore these themes in the future!


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