May 6, 2021 Leave a comment

So Richard Dawkins has been retroactively stripped of this 1996 Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association. This occurred following his tweet on April 10th of this year: “In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black…Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.”

Dawkins wasn’t stripped of his award for that tweet, it was just the last one in a long line of Dawkins making comments that could not be interpreted any other way then as denigrating to groups of people. He’s long held the position that trans identities are fictional and that calling them out as such will get an individual villified. While he’s absolutely correct about the latter, that arguments rests on the false premise of the former.

Rachel Dolezal lied, and to…you know, I was going to get into a whole thing about how it’s a false comparison but that would be a distraction. It’s a distraction because the issue isn’t whether or not Dawkins is right–he’s not. The issue is that atheists need to identify where they stand even when one of the most important members of the movement pulls shit like this. Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist–who should put down his phone and continue reading the science–should know better and its super important that he gets called out for these kinds of claims. We, as atheists, don’t do sacrosanct individuals. There’s no heresy or blasphemy in labelling someone wrong when they are wrong and we need to be better than the other groups about this as well.

The problem that we atheists have, is that the other side is so entrenched, that any mistake we make is used as a club to dismiss the whole movement. They’ll claim, “oh so you freethinkers let Dawkins get away with bashing trans people because he’s Dawkins.” And they’d be correct to say that, if we were remaining silent on the issue.

Dawkins follows a long line of prominent atheists that seem to have forgotten what a reasoned based outlook on life is supposed to be about–agreeing with what can be proven through empiricism or rationality. The science of sex is not based in ones and zeroes, there’s plenty in between; for Dawkins to not understand that is ignorance whether it is willful or not.

Critics of atheism are already running to Dawkins defense claiming that if we’re so open, why are we villifying people for expressing their opinion?!

But this isn’t a question anymore than Dawkins’ tweet was really about opening up a discussion. They’ve found a rock they think they can throw at us for being hypocrites. Given that lambasting Dawkins is the right thing to do: they can throw away all they want it’s not going to hurt us. The best feature about this movement is that it admits that it was wrong in the past, that it does not know everything, and that the only real consistent theme is doubt. Taking the most esteemed member of the movement to task isn’t a bug it’s a feature.

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April 28, 2021 Leave a comment

I have been a little quiet these last two weeks, and for once school is not to blame. No, instead I have been working on publications for websites that are not my own. So, after many many years of writing, what I intend to be, a weekly blog I finally have other people willing to publish some of my stuff. This means, that i had to take some time away from the only time I get to work on this: but it’s kind of worth the trade off as the reason I write the blog is to practice putting words on screens.

Both the articles concern conspiracy theories, unfortunately, I only get to link one of them. The wrinkle is that one post is in a print magazine and they are not linking to that content without a subscription.

The first you can read here:

This concerns the link the between Alt-med people and their slow indoctrination into the cult of Q. I’d go into more detail but the link is literally the article so do that (I receive no payment for you clicking on that link).

The second is my commentary on the January 6th anti-democracy riot. This article appears in this month’s Skeptical Inquirer (again, I am not receiving money if you pick up the issue).

Neither of these articles are religious in nature, but both touch on a tangential issue that we are seeing in American culture: that is the linking of religion with conspiratorial belief. For a segment of the population right now, the two are the same. If an individual tells me that they think Biden stole the election, I know everything I need to know about them in that sentence. Tell me if I am wrong: they are ultra right wing conservatives, they would have considered Eisenhower to be a dirty liberal, their stance on immigration is a war crime, and they are evangelical Christians.

The right wing in this country has turned so hard into conspiracism that I honestly don’t see how they come back from it. The reason they can’t is because they’ve wrapped these beliefs in with their religious identity. The former president was not just a political figure, I mentioned a few years ago that they were comparing him to Cyrus of Persia. Cyrus, it bears reminding, is the messiah that the second book of Isaiah refers to in the Bible. His coming was eminent to liberate the Jewish people from their Babylonian captives.

As several atheist podcasts have pointed out, the January 6th riots’ symbols of the former president were as numerous as the displays of Christianity. Supporting the ex-president is the significant overlap in the venn diagram with “being a Christian.” Supporting the former president also shares an overlap with white racial nationalist (as well as “being a Christian”). This kind of makes sense, as Swami points out (2016), people in high stress situations are prone to conspiracy theorizing. When their king was determined to not have enough votes to win (again) nor enough states to win; the thought was similar to the “great disappointment. (When Miller was wrong about the second coming of Jesus in 1844)”

They have two options: shrug and go home; or, claim a conspiracy exists that stole the election. From the latter it is a short jump to every other conspiracy theory. You just can’t claim “faith” as the reason god’s anointed lost the election, there has to be another reason and the conspiracism is the answer to it.

I’m hoping to write more articles and have already submitted a second one. I’ll repost them as they are released (there is a two week embargo on me reposting them–if I understand the website correctly); but I’ll still be doing this as this is where I write about atheism.

The Epicurean Paradox-3

April 14, 2021 Leave a comment

I think that it is one of the more important arguments in philosophy, so I make my students read it every time I teach Intro to Phil or Philosophy of religion. It’s important because it creates, in obvious terms, the problem of evil. Of course, it doesn’t “create” the problem–evil creates the problem, belief in the divine creates the problem; the two together create the problem. If you are reading an atheist’s blog you are likely aware of the paradox. If you are reading this blog, you are aware because I mention it once a semester when the papers come back. For newbies the paradox is as follows:

Evil exists

Therefore god is either: aware and able to stop it, but unwilling. Willing and able, but not aware. Finally Aware and willing but unable to stop it.

That’s the proper paradox. First things first, this appears nowhere in Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus in his extant writings does not mention it. It comes from an early Christian writer using this paradox to criticize the Epicureans (how that was supposed to work I don’t understand). Secondly, the paradox does not disprove the existence of god, it can’t do that. The only thing that it does do is remove a quality from god’s traits denying religious believers the tri-omni god that is held to in the Western monotheisms. The assignment is to respond to the paradox.

Last time I talked about the assignment I mentioned the free will response that is always the most popular response. Most other people try to separate out free will with natural evil. Claiming that natural calamities are the results of the natural order so they don’t count as “evil” in the same vein that a lion who kills an antelope isn’t evil. This is what I was taught as a response to the problem in high school. The Catholic priests that taught this did their best to gloss over the subject as quickly as possible. There was no reading of Voltaire’s Candide or Lucretius’ Plague of Athens.

When the responses do not fall into “free will” and “kind of free will but red herring about tornadoes” they usually just show me that the student has no idea and just wrote something to write something. Every now and then I get a weird one, and the weird ones are the ones that really stick with me.

This time around a student replied that if the Epicurean argument were true, then this would eliminate the idea of god in most people’s minds. So far, this is sort of true. The conception of the all loving all powerful god would be gone, though to repeat, the paradox does not eliminate god’s existence. The student then goes on, “just because many of these devastations still occur and there is no sign of God to help, it is important to understand that without this Divine Being, people would have no outlet for their devotion to faith.”

This much is true, there’d be no outlet for devotion to faith. The student is not just writing this as a bad thing, it’s much more subtle and insidious than that. We, as atheists, are cool with that being gone. People who normally spend just their time in religious services could spend that time doing something productive instead of being told that they are sinners, unclean, or worthless in the eyes of the divine.

The more subtle part is that the default setting on people is that they are religious and need the outlet for devotion. It ought to be clear to everyone, even the religious, that if religious belief was the baseline then religious belief wouldn’t need to be taught. Devotion would be something inherent to our being and not a thing we force children to do until it becomes a habit tied to their identity.

The incorrectness of the assertion aside, the insidiousness of this perspective has some dire consequences. The idea that there exists a default setting, means that there exists a “correct setting.” This is why people complain about the default character generation on some video games–the starting model is some white guy (Caucasian–I suppose if the person was white like a sheet of paper it wouldn’t be an issue) and everything has to be changed from that to be more representative. Making the claim that a person possesses some kind of feature or desire of “devotion to faith” that needs an outlet implies that those without it are some how defective.

The view that those who do not express the outlet of devotion are faulty in some ways leads to the obvious conclusion that they need to be fixed. It’s not a matter of being right and wrong, it’s a matter of having diverted from the natural course of things. It’s the meta-problem of religious persecution: religions which fight each other over seeming minute differences of beliefs are doing so because the other side has swayed from the natural order of things. Sunni-Shia, Catholic-Protestant, aren’t matters of dispute because one side read a book wrong, they are matters of dispute because that outlet of devotion is directed toward the wrong thing and this upsets the natural order.

The responses to this assignment are always a mixed bag for me. In some ways it’s just another grind (those who agree with the paradox and the free will answers); in others it’s very enlightening to view inside the perspective of younger religious people. This one would bother me in a better written paper, but it’s clearly indicative of student that hasn’t been taught anything else. Hopefully this kind of assignment at least has gotten them to think about it.

Circular Arguments

March 31, 2021 Leave a comment

Theological question begging is one of the most frustrating aspects of the religious debate. In a way it puts the two sides of the argument on unequal footing making it impossible for the two sides to understand what the other is talking about. That is, of course, provided that neither side has any experience with the other. If the secular side is going to stick to the rational logical argument then they have to be prepared to hit the wall of fallacy. This should be patently obvious, especially when arguing against the typical Bible literalist who is just going to deny the evidence or just hide behind unprovable assumptions.

However, if you end up arguing with someone who is schooled in apologetics, who knows more responses than just the “it says in my book…” you may run into a rather subtle, and if I dare say, nuanced duo that until recently I just realized is a form of question begging.

Before we begin, the fallacy of question begging is not what most people think it is. I teach this in my Skepticism course as one of the most misused phrases in argumentation. Most people use the phrase “that begs the question” as synonymous with “that raises the question” however this is not a fallacy. Merely needing to ask a question doesn’t mean a person has committed a mistake. Begging the question is when premise A proves the conclusion, however Premise A is not itself proven. The example I always use is when an airport says it needs your ID because your ID is important without explaining why it is important (I have a photo of this sign that I took at the Baltimore airport many years ago). The phrase comes from the Greek, as Aristotle wrote about it in his Posterior Analytics (64b) which he describes it as “asking for the initial thing” in other words the arguer is asking their opponent to agree with the initial premise in order to support the conclusion…rhetorically. It’s similar to a special pleading argument where you have to accept an improbable premise in order to assent to the conclusion (such as I should buy a lottery ticket because someone has to win).

The two pronged question begging comes in with the use of the “faith as a test” and the “divine hiddenness.” Divine hiddenness is our thing. That’s where we ask where the god being is and why it is shielded from us. The divine hiddenness position claims that the absence is not real absence but a question of faith. God is there you just can’t see god, because god chooses to remain hidden until you have enough faith.

This works like the Picard/Cardassian torture exercise about the number of lights. Eventually it was not the physical torture that had Picard rattled at the end of the episode, it was that he started to believe that there were five lights (when there were only five–the episode is “Chain of Command” and is probably one of the best episodes of TNG). Divine hiddenness as a phenomenon begs the question that there is something hidden in the first place. It assumes that atheists are wrong but the evidence is only presented to people that have looked around enough.

This standard of proof works for this and things like bigfoot. Bigfoot only exists for the people predisposed to believe in Bigfoot. For the rest of us, bigfoot “could” exist but as far as we know does not. The divine being has a further problem where its existence requires the breaking of Occam’s razor by introducing a spiritual component where we our natural world is limited to forces and matter. That aside though, the parallel is the same: you have to believe in the thing, then justify its absence with the claim that no one is looking hard enough.

Divine hiddenness is just a shield though. It’s a distraction from the central question. People using this argument have not only accepted the existence of a divine power but the existence of a specific divine power. They have to because they are attributing personality characteristics to it. How else would it know to hide when the average non-believer or even the average believer were looking? I attempt to stress this in courses, but no matter what flavor of argument a person is using, that only gets them the existence of god, that doesn’t get them the truth of their religion. Divine hiddenness does worse: it only gets you a trickster god–a Loki without the personality (and no, I’m not referring to the MCU character).

Nevertheless it is an argument that is not just built on sand, but it’s built on the claim that there is probably sand over there. The best case scenario: there actually is sand. The result though is much different because in this society, we are preconditioned to think of magical thinking as a legitimate path to explanation. Instead of pointing out how foolish this position is, we end up arguing over the scenario of looking for a cat in a dark room (or however that is supposed to work). The answer to the question, “if god wanted to remain hidden as a test of our faith, then how would we know?” is not to make loud objections but to simply ask, “then what is the difference?”

1 Year Later

March 25, 2021 Leave a comment

Well it’s been a solid year for the Covid now. I write this as my facebook memories are full of things that I posted last year as it was becoming apparent that this was the real thing.

In February as the news was starting to break that there was a new infectious disease detected in China, I was understandably skeptical of the whole thing. I said this last year, I have been through five of these panics, sars, avian bird flu, ebola, I think another sars, and h1n1; I had not realized a few things at the time that I think we all know now.

1] There was absolutely no leadership at the top in the US. My currently embattled governor (I live in NY) was probably one of three voices of reason in the early months. He should not have been. Neither should the governors of Massachussetts, Michigan, and to some extent Ohio (before people reminded him that he was a Republican).

2] Not only was there no leadership at the top, but the people in charge were purposefully incompetent. You can’t be that stupid by accident. Bill Maher once joked about George W. Bush, after 9/11, that Bush wasn’t expecting to have to work that hard at being president. The thing is that Bush, love him or hate him, stepped up and did the job. Trump did not, he not only fired the people that would have helped before the vaccine hit, but then actively worked against his own experts and their advice. Touting the efficacy of hydrochloroquinine long after the planet said it didn’t work, undercutting both doctors Fauci and Brix, claiming that it will just disappear when it gets warm, etc.

3] (and this is the relevant part to an atheism blog) That religious groups would actively fight against the science and the law in order to stay open. As corny as it is to cite the movie Office Space, but seriously religion and especially Christianity, what would you say you do here?

I’ve mentioned this throughout the Covid crisis but it bears repeating on the anniversary. Religion in the US, and especially the Christian ones have fought repeatedly for the right to have lots of people gather in their doors, hug each other, while singing, and sharing a cup. The law has bent over backwards to accommodate them even as time and time again, they have proven to be super spreaders. Why do they do this? Why does it seem like the only reason they exist is to be an albatross around the neck of civilization? From the pastors that were busing people to services that held hundreds of people to the weird alliance between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Jewish Temple in NYC that sued to get their places open.

It’s not just that, now that we have vaccines. Big religion is looking for every opportunity to fight against people taking them. From various Catholic Bishops claiming that because the stem cells were derived from an aborted zygote way back thus they are the fruit of abortion. The Catholic claim is at least scientifically literate, ignoring the moral implications (and as I said last week–it is not the Vatican’s official position). But as we head further into the evangelical realm the claims become even more ludicrous regarding luciferin and RNA changes. These claims expose one of two things: the religious leader’s ignorance of how the medicine works or that they are purposefully misleading their congregations.

What we are currently seeing may be the exposure of these groups to reality. Their god created the disease (or it was free will) and then their god failed to deliver on protecting them (and only them) while also never delivering the cure when their guy was in charge. It’s the “I’m going to take my ball and go home…and all of you should come with me” pouting that worked so well on the playground when I was a kid. Then again, that’s just me speculating. I can’t begin to fathom the immorality that would compel someone to tell another they have power over to reject medical advice during a pandemic.

The DDE and the Vaccine

March 10, 2021 Leave a comment

I said it last week but it bears repeating, whenever the Catholic church appears in the news it’s never a good thing. At best, it’s a meh thing. The superintendent of my city’s Catholic schools retired last week…because he’s old and wanted to move on. For second there, you didn’t know did you? For a second, I didn’t know. That, my friends, is the point. There was a brief period where we all thought that the retirement was “forced.” It wasn’t and all the best wishes to him for not having committed the most ghastly of crimes when it is pretty apparent that he could have and not ever been punished.

This week’s topic is about the vaccine. Maybe you’ve heard of the Covid-19 pandemic, or the vaccines that have been developed by medical science? If you haven’t there’s now four vaccines: Astro-zenca, Pfizer, Moderna, and now a Johnson and Johnson vacccine. The JJ vaccine is notable in that you only need one shot instead of the two that the other three require for efficacy. This is huge because it allows people who do not have the time, because of work, to get vaccinated. It also allows the homeless who are unlikely to show up for a second appointment, and are less likely to be found for the second shot as well. This is a huge benefit to the world as one of the problems we are going to have is the Covid virus hiding in populations that have more difficulty in getting vaccinated.

This means of course that various Catholic Bishops have opposed the vaccine on the grounds that it was developed from a cell line that was attained from an aborted fetus about fifty years ago. The Catholic church is obviously opposed to abortion and apparently all the fruits thereof.

To be honest: this is not the Vatican’s position. The Vatican hasn’t said word one about this and neither has Pope Francis. This is, thus far, just concentrated in the U.S. (though I have not looked for Catholic positions in Mexico, Canada, or S. America).

Of course this is just superstitious nonsense that is going to get people killed. The various Bishops have said that followers ought to try and seek alternatives; but their position carries the weight of moral authority (somehow) so if you are a devout Catholic would you take the chance? You’re risking eternal damnation by inoculating yourself with the ill-gotten fruits of abortion. What if that is the only option for vaccination? Granted the disease numbers are declining but this could be a just an anomaly, would you–the hypothetical devout Catholic–take the risk of Hell? Probably not, and that is precisely what these Bishops are playing with: that fear. They know it too which is what makes it so abominable that they would even offer up this “advice.”

Here’s the thing: I don’t even think they’re correct from a theological standpoint. Generally Catholic doctrine is sourced in the Bible, and some various works of the early church fathers. Abortion isn’t mentioned directly in the Bible but the church has a few ways to work it in. For most moral controversies, that aren’t covered in the books (pornography for instance) the Catholic morality defaults back to the Doctrine of Double Effect, or the DDE. In my AFK life I’m a doctor of philosophy and have taught this very thing, so bear with me I’m going to argue that the DDE does not rule out the JJ vaccine. This doctrine holds that an action is immoral if it violates one of the following:

1: the nature of the act is itself good or morally neutral

2: The agent intends the good effect and not the bad either as a means to the good or an end in itself

3: The good outweighs the bad effect in circumstances sufficient to justify the bad

You may be thinking to yourself that I’m DOA because #1 is abortion and the Church has ruled that bad. True, but also not what the act is. The act, here, is developing a vaccine. It is not abortion (I would contend that if JJ said we could make a vaccine tomorrow with an aborted fetus that wouldn’t necessarily be immoral–but I’m not Catholic). The abortion took place decades ago and the agents in this case are not contributing to the act.

Number 2 is the trickiest one. 2 is the reason a woman can take the pill as birth control but not an IUD. This is because the pill has other uses while the IUD does not. If a woman, Amanda, takes the pill to regulate her menstrual cycle she can with birth control as a foreseen but unintended consequence. If Breanna has an IUD installed she’s immoral because its only function is the prevention of pregnancy. With me so far? Good, because here is where it gets weird: if Catherine takes the pill to prevent pregnancy she’s immoral. Notice that Amanda and Catherine have both performed the same act but one is immoral and the other moral based on their intent. If Deandra takes the pill intending both, it balances out and we move to number three. Before we get to that though, you might be thinking: isn’t this just hairsplitting? Won’t this lead to people just telling their MD at a Catholic hospital what they need to in order to get birth control? Yes it is and yes they do. Also: congratulations you are a Utilitarian.

2 also prevents the good from being the result of the bad. In other words, we can’t assassinate Hitler to stop the war, because that’s straight up murder. Here is where the Church steps in: they are claiming that the vaccine is derived from an abortion. This would be the case if the abortion was performed for the intent of creating the vaccine, but the cell lines were taken from the abortion for general research purposes and eventually used for the vaccine. I don’t think that the Bishops have a moral position to stand on.

3 is what I call a “dunker.” It’s an easy one. Does the good outweigh the bad? It certainly does, because one clump of cells was terminated from development and if only two people get this vaccine that’s a win.

In conclusion, the only reason these Bishops are saying this is to try and stay relevant in a world where science has surpassed religion in fixing this global crisis. Even if the cells were taken from an abortion performed two years ago it wouldn’t fall in violation of the DDE.

Religion in the News Scattergun Edition

March 3, 2021 Leave a comment

A little too much to cover this week for one long post, but I also think that if I leave it the topics will go away. So three short topics in one post for this week.

1] The conversation with the fundamentalist is continuing, but it’s starting to get really weird. So the topic of the vaccine came up and I was ready to basically quit the conversation if this person was an anti-vaxxer. Yes, yes, cancel culture…blah blah blah, but I do not want to contribute to the his perception that he’s “winning” an argument about vaccines. So I asked him for proof and he sent me to some non-scientific online conspiracy source. Then he asked if I would be ok with the vaccine containing something called “luciferase.” This enzyme, which is real to my surprise, is used in the lab for testing the best method of injection. It’s bioluminscent and then the explanation went to places that I don’t quite understand. However it contains the word “lucifer” and that means it is evil. And the accusation continues that it is in a dose of 66.6 ml (the fake number of the beast). He (I’m assuming it’s a “he”) then went on to ask me if I was ok with modified DNA/RNA–which of course because that’s kind of how these vaccines work. I have a feeling that this latter objection is because he thinks that the DNA inside his cells is going to change. Who knows, I was completely unprepared for luciferase. When some archaeologist form an alien race wants to know how people with our level of science were wiped out by a plague, I hope they find some record of people like him to help them explain it.

2] For this one we have to travel to Sacramento California’s Sacred Heart Parish Catholic School. This school, now infamous, because it expelled three kids, all under the age of 12. They did so because the children’s mother, Crystal Jackson, has an only fans account and posts sexy pictures of herself and stories that she has written. Jackson, is apparently quite successful at this bringing in about a 150k per month. A number, which I’m sure, will drastically increase given the attention she’s gotten because of the actions of the school.

Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s a private school and they can do what they will with their students. I doubt there is a some contract that the school violated that they couldn’t lawyer their way out of. The problem, morally, is that they are punishing the students for what their parent did–which I think is something that Jesus doesn’t like. Secondly, the story is that some parent in the school realized that Jackson was “The Real Mrs. Poindexter” and sent the principal of the school the pics. Then a group of parents demanded that the family be removed from the Community. I want to know which parent caught their husband jerking off to the neighbor’s Only Fans? Let’s be honest here, how else did this get discovered.

The most important issue though is that this is just another example of religious fear of human sexuality. I spent a good part of last year reading a Bishop’s book on the child rape crisis, and the first chapter was about how Catholicism/God doesn’t hate sex. Then things like this happen. Jackson and her husband are consenting adults, they are both doing this as part of their marriage, and it hurt zero people until some insecure busybodies decided that other people’s lives are their business and they could leverage their religion into shaming them. I guess on the brightside though, the Jackson’s kids won’t be in a Catholic school to be indoctrinated into the same kind of thought process. A further brightside is that those kids are going to be further from the grip of any physical Catholic clergy, because when you see the words “Catholic Church” in the news…it’s almost always worse than some kids getting expelled…

3] 10,000 victims. An independent inquiry into the Catholic church in France has reported that there have been at least 10,000 victims of clergy sex abuse since 1950. They reported that the earlier number of 3,000 was clearly an underestimate. Let’s be clear about what I am saying, the number is at least 10,000 and is very likely going to be more. This means that the very Catholic country of France now joins countries such as–the rest of the planet–with a huge clergy child rape problem and a massive plot to coverrup the abuse by literally everyone in the Vatican. It’s hard to even write about this. Not because it’s so terrible, but because it keeps happening. Every single time an investigation into this occurs, the conclusion is always more horrible than expected. The German case where they were literally renting the kids out, the Irish where they found the dead babies…it was bad when we just thought it was the Vatican shuffling the priests back and forth.

I know in the US that they are pretty much a drag on progress. Dioceses here are telling parishioners to refuse on the vaccines because it has RNA derived from a stem cell. The moral concern is more on their poor understanding of science and morality (the original source was not aborted for the sake of the stem cell, it’s just been harvested as a byproduct of the original source, it passes the DDE so under their own rules it should be fine) and is more concerned with being on one side of their favorite wedge issue than anything else.

What is the good that they are providing to society at large? The religious people, they can say that they get more religion out of it. But that’s not a general social good, that’s a specific good for people already predisposed to think this way. Yes, the French clergy child rape cases are terrible, and yes, it is a relatively small number of victims for a seventy year period–but that only matters if there wasn’t intent and a purposeful conspiracy to cover it up. I’ve said it many times and I will continue to do so, any other organization would be burned to the ground and held legally liable.

Man’s Science

February 24, 2021 1 comment

I mentioned two weeks ago that I was engaged in a conversation with some Bible literalists on a different blog. The person had expressed a desire to have a conversation with an atheist and I jumped in. It seems more to me now that this person didn’t really want a conversation but more of a punching bag for their attempt at conversion. Perhaps also, and again this is all speculation, what this person wanted was the war story.

The thing is that I have not given them the story that they wanted and it seems to be confusing them (I am using the plural because while one person is constantly writing back, there is another present too–oddly the original poster is the that barely chimes in). The war story they want is the time they tried to engage with an atheist and then that evil non-believer called them idiots, swore at them, at which point the conversation ended and they got to relish about the time their book was proven right (Matthew 5:11). What I’m doing, is not giving them that. At first I was attempting to clarify their misconceptions of evil atheists.

I pointed out that the only difference, really, is that I keep all of my income and don’t have to be somewhere on Sundays. I mentioned this last post so scroll down if you want to read that. The conversation has changed into a very complicated and impressive exercise in shifting the goal posts. One thing that the Bible is not, is a book about the natural world or science. It gets basic facts wrong, has unicorns in it, and has science only as advanced as the–apparently dumbest–person in the Bronze Age. For example: the bats are birds thing comes from a list in Leviticus about the unclean animals you aren’t supposed to eat. Amongst that list are the list of unclean birds and the omnipotent god of the universe includes bats in that list. The person I’m arguing with says that this is dumb because the word in Hebrew means flying animal “owph.” Maybe, I wouldn’t budge on this one because his source is Answers in Genesis, and I’m not going to let anyone think they can score points by citing Ken Ham. The Hebrew lexicon has the word as meaning “fowl” and I’m more willing to trust the Jews on their own language then AIG. The point I was making is not that the little problems should matter individually (they should still because the omnipotent creator of the universe wrote the book) but that there shouldn’t even be a controversy. It should be clear as clear.

However, I have an ace up my sleeve for this kind of conversation. I ask, “is the world flat”? No matter which way they answer, I have them; because the literal words of the Bible are that the Earth is flat. Four corners of the Earth, the scene with Satan showing Jesus all of the kingdoms of the Earth, there are about a dozen or so passages where the creator of the world doesn’t seem to know what shape the Earth is. The answer should be “yes it is;” if they are the literalists they claim to be. They were both not literalists even though they have spent a considerable number of posts trying to tell me that the Flood happened because the Bible is literally true. One member of the conversation tried to weasel out of it by saying that it looked flat to the writer of the Bible. When I pointed out that this means the book is not a book of science the posts were set further back and the topic is changed again.

Now the conversation is about man’s science versus god. The claim is now that the science is bad because it is the fruit of man’s knowledge and not relying on god. My response: like the computer/internet you are typing on? Their answer: well, no; because sometimes god uses man to impart knowledge. Me: This seems arbitrary though, you are cherry picking based on what is convenient.

This to me is a problem with religion. These two people are very quick to demonize “man’s science” for everything that doesn’t make their life more convenient. Religion opposes the progress of science until the wall of reality becomes too much and they have to turn around and say “no no, we were always on the side of this development, god has inspired it.” Throughout history this is apparent. Religious authorities opposed medicine for syphilis, AIDs, and Vesalius’s work where he simply counted the number of ribs in the human body. Religious figures opposed Franklin’s invention of the lightening rod as a subversion of god’s will. Eventually it becomes too much and they had to acquiesce to reality.

These two people have fallen into the same trap of thinking. Man’s science is evil because the flood never happened, but if man’s science proved that the flood happened–well we would be looking at a completely different position wouldn’t we? They would be openly bragging about how the evil science of geology was on their side in much the same way that the original discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh was proof of Noah’s flood…until it was dated as having been written before the flood. I’ve called them on the cherry picking and we’ll see how that turns out, but I’m expecting another shifting of the goal posts because the one thing that the brain doesn’t like is facing a contradiction in belief.

Belief Parity

February 17, 2021 Leave a comment

Last Thursday I gave a talk about conspiracy theories to my college’s Philosophy Club. It’s a talk that I’m very familiar with, having written a dissertation on the topic, and am trying to work as a more general talk that I can give when the opportunity presents itself at short notice. The talk itself makes the claim that conspiracy theories cause harm, which is now much more actual than theoretical, and how we should engage with conspiracy theorists. It still needs work, because everything could always use a bit more improvement, but overall the design of the talk is to get a lively Q and A going. The talk is very successful in this manner.

One question that came up during last week’s talk was the parity between conspiracy theory belief and religious belief. I’ve mentioned this comparison before during my dissertation writing stage: the parallels are very apparent but I want to discourage these comparisons. I know that part of my reasoning is the deference that audiences provide to religion. It’s cultural and I want my message to be taken seriously without people thinking “oh the atheist thinks that people who believe in the flat earth are the same as the people that believe in Jesus.” This is a danger since the conspiracy theory angle is dangerous, NOW; while religion’s danger comes is…still now, but more subtle as a general position. Extremism is always going to be the most dangerous thing out there, but conspiracy theorists are much more extreme as an average than most of the religious people in the US.

Most of the public doesn’t see the link between religion and conspiracy theories: I would have to make the case that Voltaire’s claim that if they can make you believe in something absurd they can make you commit something atrocious. I see some primary differences between conspiracy theory belief and religious belief. The first is that, with rare exception, people aren’t raised in conspiracy theory households. The vast majority of people are raised to not only believe in religion but a very specific and particular religion. Those that come to conspiracy theories do so for a variety of reasons that I will not get into, but they aren’t told to be conspiracy theorists. Another difference is that they aren’t shunned for not believing in a conspiracy theory. Joining the Q-Anon belief is more likely to cause family rifts, unlike religious belief. In the latter the shunning is likely to occur when an individual changes religious beliefs or abandons them altogether.

Another social difference is that conspiracy theories tend to not have behavior requirements. If you believe in the Flat Earth there isn’t something you have to do. There are things you will do: produce an overly long YouTube video and then scream about the first amendment if it gets taken down. You will probably attend a meeting or conference (in the pre-Covid times); but there is no compulsion. Religion requires you to attend service, observe certain days, and then pay your ten percent.

Other differences are minor and depend on the type of conspiracy theory: a Q-anon believer is likely to be anti-lgbtq or at the very least anti-trans; like all of the abrahamic religions–even though there is nothing necessarily in the Q belief that requires one to be anti-lgbtq. It’s just a feature. There isn’t going to a be a lot of room for atheists in Flat Earth (seriously) but again, there’s nothing necessarily in Flat Earth that requires a belief in a deity.

These are differences in particular aspects though. In genera the primary difference is that a conspiracy theory requires a coverup of knowledge, while religion openly displays the knowledge as well as the author of it. This difference is fundamental and rather devastating to those that would make the case that the type of beliefs are the same. However, the those making that claim don’t mean it technically. They mean the comparison as fuctional.

To believe in either requires the special pleading fallacy. The conspiracy theory is true if X exists, or if the conspiracy “factoids” are true. The religion is true is the godhead exists. In both cases neither primary claim has sufficient support to be considered “true.” It’s an assumption that must be made first and then the rest of belief is designed to support the assumption. We commonly call this fallacy circular reasoning or begging the question. The more specific term of special pleading that I mention earlier is that the believer is asking you to ignore the fact that they have made the primary assumption, and if you will do this then the rest of it makes sense. Which, sure, it might make sense but we can’t just skip that first part.

The real issue is that making that first jump means that anything else can be let in along with it. Unicorns, dragons, cabals of sex traffickers? Why the hell not, the believer has already decided that assumptions will now count as evidence. The degradation of skepticism is the primary damage. If a person is not willing to question a belief because it is a belief, than we are left with a society that protects epistemic relativism. This is the real danger of both kinds of beliefs.


February 10, 2021 Leave a comment

I’m in this private group on facebook. It’s for philosophers to discuss conspiracy theories. One of the founders of the group posted an article from “The Conversation” via making the claim that Creationism bears all the hallmarks of conspiracy theorizing. This is something I talked about a long time ago, it is also something I’ve discussed in my philosophy of religion course waaaay back when I used to teach that.

I will be absolutely clear: just being a Creationist is not necessarily a conspiratorial belief. If you grew up on the Bible, you would have a vastly incorrect understanding of the world and how it works. You would not however, have a conspiracy theory in your hand. I define conspiracy theory very specifically in my day job, I define it as a “An alternative explanation for an event/phenomenon, for which the central claim is a purposeful direct concealment of the truth by a group of actors; for which the evidence is inadequate to support the claim.”

The belief in a young Earth Creation and a literal interpretation of the Bible does not necessarily mean that there is a conspiracy theory afoot. Obviously the first part matches. Creationism is an alternate explanation from what is considered the accepted explanation. However, it fails on the second: Creationism–in and of itself, does not claim a direct concealment of the truth. In fact, quite the opposite: they claim that the truth has always been available in the Bible, a book which is the most published book in world history. To finish off my definition it also matches the third part, the evidence for Creationism is inadequate to support its own claim.

Creationism is not a conspiracy theory until the people that teach it/believe it; begin making excuses for why it fails, why it isn’t taught in schools, and why they are not accepted by the larger academic community. Teaching Creationism isn’t a conspiracy theory, but explaining that the “theory of Evolution” is a plot by atheists to destroy Jesus is a conspiracy theory. Creationism as a pursuit becomes one because it has to break occam’s razor when justifying why no one accepts it as the truth. It needs a conspiracy to justify this.

That is what I posted (well I’m paraphrasing a bit) someone in the group posted the following in response, “This stuff isn’t a consequence of their metaphysical beliefs or crazy Creationism. Evangelicalism is the culture-religion of the lower classes. All this bad stuff comes from the ethos of the working class, not their religious beliefs as such, including Creationism. They operate in a traditional society in which women breed, men fight, and Big Men rule. That’s the working class: it has nothing to do with religion, which is epiphenomenal.

Ignoring the weird classism in the comment. Which is also incorrect (plenty of wealth individuals also think that the world should be that way), this person is trying to separate cause from effect. Claiming that all this “bad stuff” comes from something other than religion, in the person’s view–a “traditional society” eliminates that the source for the nostalgic appeal to tradition is religion in the first place. Women as secondary citizens who are only allowed to be the recipient of sexual attention, tend the children, and cook the meals; that’s from religion. The men going out and fighting…well, it’s not necessarily religion but it is certainly reinforced by it.

The real issue is that this traditional view is bound up with religion in the first place. I was raised in a “traditional setting” only my mother also worked; but religion was very much a part of my upbringing. I was taught through my religion that the world was one way and that there were forces out there trying to uproot the family, the country, and Christianity. Granted, most of the members of the Catholic congregation that I was raised in were working class but these lessons didn’t come from them. It came from the religion that held a now-ironic moral high ground telling us those lessons and squashing the kind of critical thinking that would question it.

I don’t have the information as to whether or not Evagelicalism is a working class religion or not. It seems that the poster wants to eliminate the conspiracism but keep the tool that pushes it. To repeat, Creationism isn’t a conspiracy theory in isolation. Ken Ham in his famous debate with Bill Nye, went on weird tangents about abortion and the “homosexual agenda;” the only common thread was his version of Christianity.

Ultimately the problem is going to be the magic thinking aspect of religious views. The first step in any religious belief is to accept something without any proof. The only support is the word of someone else, and then the actual observable world is forced into that mold. Creationism is the most conspiratorial of the Christian sects, and you cannot cleave the religion from the conspiratorial mindset. The post is trying to make excuses for the special pleading that would easily lead from one to the other (doesn’t matter which one came first); for the poster to claim that because religion is merely epiphenomenal that must mean it can’t cause conspiratorial thinking is just incorrect from what we know about it. The comment is merely an excuse to shift the blame from one cause to another, and I think that it is without merit to attempt to do so.