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Archive for January, 2016

A response to Cracked (a new article)

January 26, 2016 1 comment

I like cracked.com, it’s one of the few websites I check everyday. I listen to both podcasts that they produce and have submitted articles for their publication (both were rejected. I’m not bitter, I just didn’t have the time to work on them that I needed to). About six months ago, Mark Hill wrote a piece entitled “5 Ways Atheists Argue their Cause that Aren’t Helping.” I responded to that article in three separate posts, agreeing with him on some points and disagreeing vehemently with him on some others. Last week one of my personal favorite writers on the site, Luke McKinney, wrote an article entitled, “5 Atheist Arguments Which Aren’t Helping Anyone,” to which I will give the same treatment. I teach critical thinking and reasoning as a profession and while I know it’s impossible I have tried to evaluate each point as objectively as possible. I am no stranger to pointing out a bad argument even when it’s something I agree with thus I’m not on new ground. In fact I have in the past used the term “Red Team” to criticize some of the arguments that I find terrible even when they attack religion.

5: “There’s no Scientific Proof”

I have no problem with McKinney’s analysis of this argument. Yes it is often misplaced, a theist doesn’t require proof. That’s the whole thing. In fact there are seven points in the New Testament which specifically say that belief without evidence is good (especially the story of Thomas who is rebuked by Jesus for disbelieving that the dead can rise John 20:29). I make this point to my classes, you can’t argue against a particular belief if that belief is founded in something other than evidence. It’s pointless because it’s a non-starter. The two people who are arguing can’t agree on what counts as a legitimate foundation so in essence they are arguing two different things. The lack of evidence: scientific or logical isn’t going to make a single dent in a person who has absolute faith.

However…that restriction comes off the table when the faithful try to enforce their faith over scientific and logical principles. McKinney addresses this and is again correct. Pointing out that there is no evidence of a god won’t matter. However when they start claiming that we need to teach literal biblical history instead of science and actual history, it’s perfectly appropriate to point out that there is no evidence that their book/belief is correct.

4: “Logical Paradoxes”

Here’s our first substantial disagreement. McKinney’s point is that claiming belief in god means turning a blind eye to certain internal contradictions isn’t the right strategy. He admits that asking the believer “why do bad things happen to good people?” is an argument that won’t effect them in anyway so we should abandon the strategy along with questions like “who created god?” I agree that it’s unlikely to be effective but that doesn’t mean that it’s a question that ought not to be asked.

The issue is that the belief in a loving, caring, all powerful god is somehow watching over us doesn’t mesh with the indifference that the world seems to have for all of the things which live in it. The stock answer to the problem of evil is always, “god works in mysterious ways” and that’s an entirely unsatisfactory answer. It’s an appeal to ignorance combined with a special pleading fallacy. When someone like Pat Robertson says that god killed a two year old child because that child could have grown up to be Hitler (he really said this) that’s a bullshit excuse but it’s an answer because we could literally fill in anything to explain what we don’t know. Claiming that it’s part of the plan assumes there is a plan and if that’s why I’m supposed to tolerate the indifference I’m going to begin questioning the “goodness” of this divine being.

He gives a great piece of advice though: don’t make the person feel stupid. That only makes anyone get defensive and closed off from new information.

3: “The Bible/Torah/Quran/Tripitaka/Whatever Is Full of Screwed-Up Stuff!”

Again we disagree. He gives a good explanation about how things were much different in the past but then he misses the point entirely. I’ve pointed out how both the Bible and the Quran are full of impossibly horrible crimes committed by the deity itself and failing to address this for the most part is a failing of knowledge. The reasoning is that even followers of a religion who aren’t that devout will still point to their book as a moral guide. They will say that while the stories can sometimes be morally offensive, the rules are still moral.

Most religious people still believe that it’s impossible for a person to be moral without religion and then point to their book, cherry picking parts from Jesus or Muhammed that say the good stuff and ignoring everything else. Yes it’s great that Jesus gave us the golden rule but he also said that his followers must follow the old laws (Matthew 5: 18-19; Luke 16:17 but then in a different book contradicts that Luke 16:16 [right before the last one too]). So all of the rules about murdering fortune tellers and non-believers still apply and this is somehow a book of morality? Sorry, that’s not going to fly. The screwed up stuff matters especially, as he points out, when arguing with fundamentalists. All of these things matter not simply because they are terrible but because people try and selectively enforce those laws over the rest of us.

I’m not going to follow those rules. I personally don’t care about all of the little things like what kind of fibers I’m wearing or what crops I plant. However I also don’t care about witches, homosexuals, and people with tattoos enough for their blood to be upon them. The problem is that both of those groups of crimes are deserving of divine wrath, the “screwed up stuff” merely points to the cherry picking that the faithful do when try to say that the “screwed up stuff” doesn’t matter. Unless they can show a solid consistent reason for that cherry picking then it is very important.

Part II next week.

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What Religion and Mickey Mouse Have in Common

January 18, 2016 1 comment

I just spent a week with my family in Disney World, Orlando Florida. I had a revelation as I walked through their streets on the way from meeting one character to another, going on the rides, and looking at the various attractions that the Disney corporation spends so much money on. Before I get into it I just want to say that I have nothing against the Disney corporation, I’m not going to be that person.

Sure they have sanitized some folk tales in order to make their movies, but we have to admit that they do it well. The differences between Frozen and the story it’s based on “The Snow Queen” are so stark that they are barely recognizable but it’s a good movie…and it’s not such a great tale to begin with. Also, I admit there’s a certain conformity of ideas that goes along with Disney but that’s true of every brand and every corporation that wants you as a customer. When they acquired Marvel, they didn’t start stamping mouse images on everything and tone down the violence they just started collecting the money. So this article is not about hating Disney, it’s also not about liking it. Personally, I like some Disney stuff and I don’t like others.

All of that out of the way, the realization I had regarded the one image that was stamped on everything, everywhere. I couldn’t turn around without seeing that familiar icon of three simple circles–the Mickey Mouse head. I should note that I have two children: one seven and one almost two. The younger couldn’t care less about what was going on, she would point and laugh at the fountains, at a passing dog (a real one), and scream terrifyingly at fake dogs, mice, ducks, etc. The princesses were of such indifference to her that I couldn’t help laugh when they tried to engage her. The older child was much more into it because she knew where she was and that it was a special time.

When I was younger I went to Disney and was excited to meet Mickey Mouse. Why? My older daughter and her cousins were excited to meet Mickey Mouse. Why? It was a seemingly big deal that my kids were going to meet Mickey. Why?

Seriously. Perhaps it was the fact that Mickey was so omnipresent at the various parks that I became desensitized to seeing the image, but my question is really about whether or not we would come to love Mickey Mouse on our own. My thinking on the subject is that we wouldn’t. That my older daughter would not care except for the fact that we told her it was a big deal. Sure, she might recognize him from the inane “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” show on the Disney Channel, but otherwise what’s the appeal?

In the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” there’s a famous scene where Eddie Valiant is falling and meets up with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. The scene was carefully written so that neither Bugs nor Mickey would have more lines than the other so that they left the scene with equal screen time. I bring this up because Bugs Bunny has actually done things, recent things. Just like Mickey he’s iconic, but unlike Mickey, Bugs has earned it. Bugs’ sarcastic demeanor, Brooklyn accent, and instigator personality have carried him through the years but Mickey, what has he done or more accurately what has Disney done with him?

That was my realization. We have all been told that Mickey Mouse is great, but we haven’t come to that realization on our own, it’s been indoctrinated into us.

Think about it, when was the last thing with Mickey Mouse that really left an impact? Fantasia in 1940? A Mickey Christmas Carol in 1983? Aside from a couple of film shorts, some cameos, and some direct to video stuff, the character has no presence other than being an emblem. In all of his appearances there’s a surprising lack of anima or actual character than a constantly laughing mouse. Given the choice, I doubt anyone would pick the character of Mickey over Bugs Bunny.

Again, it’s that we are told that Mickey is something that we ought to like. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with Mickey but that’s not the point, there’s nothing right with him either. His appeal is limited to those that can’t make the distinction, Mickey is chosen for them not by them. Sure some of the kids will grow up and continue to like Mickey, but that’s more likely to be out of loyalty. Who among us would willingly pick Mickey based solely on his own character and filmography? I doubt any of us. It’s just as the Simpsons made fun of a few seasons ago during their trip to “Diz-Nee Land” as their Mickey Mouse character stated, “My cartoons weren’t any good they were just first.”

Mickey Mouse cartoons aren’t funny or entertaining. Sure, that’s my opinion, but show me two (to prevent that one outlier) within the last fifty years that does the job it’s supposed to and entertain someone older than four. You might retort that the purpose of the character is too entertain people that old, but that’s my point. Aside from getting them before they are able to make that kind of decision.

Having two kids I admit that there are a lot of decisions that I make for them. What they eat, where we go, and what they entertain themselves with so there’s an element of self-criticism here. However, I still fail to see the appeal of a character that I liked as a kid without having any real experience of it. Once I was able to correctly discern the difference between Mickey and other characters, Mickey was left aside. Why attach myself to a bland character with no positive attributes (again, not that he’s negative just neutral).

This is the parallel to religion. Without a quick and intensive indoctrination in youth, I fail to see the appeal of it at all. Children are born believing in a religion as much as they are born liking Mickey Mouse, that is to say–they aren’t. They are told to like Mickey as much as they are told to believe in X religion’s dogmas, rituals, and taboos. I suppose the only difference is that liking Mickey isn’t harmful, it doesn’t limit the person’s activities, and it doesn’t create a sense of self loathing that religion does. So maybe, it’s actually better.

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Concerning “Islamophobia”

January 5, 2016 Leave a comment

In recent posts, for the last few weeks, I have been defending Muslims. This may seem odd for readers who thought they were reading a blog written by an atheist which deals primarily with atheist subjects. Conservative readers (of the American variety) probably rolled their eyes with the thought that it’s another liberal atheist who only targets white Christians. There might be a segment of the readership that thinks I’m afraid to target Islam because of what has happened over the years to those that do in blogs. Perhaps other people think that I’m some kind of cultural relativist that sees Islam as “not my issue” since my country has more to fear from Christian zealots than Islamic ones (or at least they should).

The reality of the issue, was that I was not writing to defend Islam but rather the people that believe in it. This is because they are human beings.

Syria is a rough place. Living under the thumb of ISIS sounds like a horrible situation given that they allegedly have rules for how to rape female slaves, and I would gladly let anyone who wants to leave that hell-scape in to my country. Yet the intolerance that people expressed against these immigrants was so visceral, as I have pointed out, that their opinion seems to be “better they die, or worse, over there than I get a little afraid over here.”

In that, I was prompted to lambaste those offering that opinion. However one should not come away thinking that I am pro-Islam, I’m just pro-people not dying. If they happen to be Muslim, that’s irrelevant to my thought in so far as it has no bearing on my feelings. What I am really, is anti-discrimination. I refuse to judge a group of people as being criminals before they’ve actually committed any crimes, and I’m not about to sentence those people to death, rape, and whatever fate awaits them back home just because they don’t eat bacon and have to pray in a certain direction five times a day.

I will criticize Islam. Several weeks ago, I wrote a post comparing horrible passages of the Bible with horrible passages of the Quran. I freely admit that while the Bible has more violence in it, in the Quran it’s more concentrated. I’m not afraid, I’m not partial to them, and I don’t hate Christians (well I hate some, but again, it’s not because they are Christians it’s because they are jerks). The only reason I don’t burn more pixels on it, is because I’m not that familiar with the religion (I am reading the Quran though), and once I get more acquainted with it I’ll begin to expound. What I need are facts and data, not prejudices.

All of that being said, once I do it another criticism will pick up its head that I’m an Islamophobe. This is the domain of the ultra-left cultural relativist crowd which views every attack on a culture, except their own which is always wrong, as being some form of bigotry. This type of person is liable to label someone as an Islamophobe if they claim that religion was the motivation behind last year’s Charlie Hebdo shootings, the San Bernadino shooting, or the Paris attacks. They are quick to blame things like US/Western imperialism for the rise of ISIS linking the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as allowing it to happen. They’ll blame the unconditional support by the US for Israel as being a severe contributive factor to Middle Eastern unrest. Very carefully, they’ll never say that religion is to blame…unless it’s the Christian religion.

The problem, and this is a running theme, is that ideas are open to criticism. They have to be, the minute that you can’t criticize an idea is the same minute that liberty of thought dies. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, as English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued, there is no right to be censored. This is the price we pay for freedom, we just have to tolerate ideas that we might feel are offensive. If someone wants to argue that Islam is a religion of peace, they have that right to and I would welcome that debate. However calling me a racist/bigot by using the term “Islamophobe” is merely trying to shut down the conversation under the guise of being tolerant. What must be understood is that I’m on both sides of this issue.

I’m pro Muslim, but anti-Islam; in much the same way that I’m pro Scientologist, but anti-Scientology. I’m for the people but against their ideas. I’m not afraid of Muslims, but I dislike their creed…as far as I know it.

I don’t want to sound like I’m entirely against these cultural relativists: they have some points. Sure, political strife does have something to do with terrorism. Yes, ISIS probably wouldn’t be a thing if Saddam Hussein still ran Iraq. And sure, the US is way too into Israel. But these terrorists openly declare that their actions are motivated by religion. Sure, Hussein might have shut down ISIS, but a world without a despotic madman is a better one (and besides, what does that say about their argument when we kind of know how Saddam Hussein quelled groups he didn’t like). However the general idea of cultural relativism is just wrong. Feel free to argue it, but some things are just wrong no matter what culture they come from. Forced sex is just wrong, slavery is just wrong; put those together and its double wrong–it doesn’t matter why it exists. However if a group is using their religion to justify it, it doesn’t mean that we have to jump through a bunch of hoops to avoid talking about their justification and blame it on something else. We can call it out without being bigoted.

The very term is tossed around with such aplomb that it is essentially meaningless. Not just any criticism can be considered Islamophobic. A person who says we shouldn’t let those kinds of people in their country is, however, being one. Let’s save the accusations for when it’s applicable.

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