Archive for September, 2016

Of Miracles

September 29, 2016 1 comment

‘The historic case against miracles is also rather simple. It consists of calling miracles impossible, then saying that no one but a fool believes impossibilities: then declaring that there is no wise evidence on behalf of the miraculous. The whole trick is done by means of leaning alternately on the philosophical and historical objection. If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, “Yes, but there is no evidence for them.” When we take all the records of the human race and say, “Here is your evidence,” they say, “But these people were superstitious, they believed in impossible things.”–GK Chesterton

Miracles, where to start? First off let’s lay the groundwork on what exactly we are talking about. A miracle must be a violation of the natural order. This way we can rule out what may constitute a miracle as being a matter of perspective. If I want to run into someone and I pray for it, then I do; that’s not a miracle–that’s a coincidence at worst. A miracle must be something that could not happen without divine interference a sublimation of the natural laws. A frog falling from the sky? Not a miracle. Someone who was sick and then suddenly got better? Not a miracle…probably. Frogs sometimes fall from the sky and sick people sometimes suddenly get better.

The quote above was posted on a friend’s facebook wall and I thought it worthy of at least addressing. Chesterton, if you don’t know, is a Christian apologist who, despite the normal attachment of that label is very reasonable and easy to read. I would put him on par with CS Lewis, though some of my colleagues will undoubtedly say Chesterton is the better. I’m of an indifferent opinion given that I’ve read considerably more Lewis than Chesterton. He’s reasonable in the sense that I don’t want to throw his essays across the room when I’m reading them, in fact, I wish more defenders of a faith were like this guy…even though I consider him wrong.

So let’s take this quote from Chesterton and unpack it a bit. The first sentence is half right: the case against miracles is about historical verification. As in, there really isn’t any. Sure there are plenty of accounts, but such accounts are usually suspect to begin with. Lourdes for instance has had 200 million visitors and only 69 confirmed miracles. Yet the miracles are steeped in two problematic issues: the first is in relying on the medical knowledge of the mid-to late 19th century. Something being pronounced “incurable” is being done so with a very limited knowledge of the human body and how diseases work. At this point in history Ignaz Semmelweis is being thrown in an asylum for the crime of suggesting that surgeons wash their hands in between dissecting cadavers and delivering children. The second, a slightly more problematic for my cause, is that the people who are believing in these miracles are those that the miracles occur to. This is a two fold problem. On the one hand if you have lost vision in one eye and then you do a thing which afterward causes the vision to return then the why question is answered if you are predisposed to religious thinking. This is problematic for my proposal because I will not call that person a liar, I truly believe that they believe what happened is a miracle and even if I didn’t I know that there is nothing that I could do or say that would convince them. What they believe happened is not sufficient to show the truth of belief, just as someone being a martyr doesn’t show the truth of their religion but the truth of their belief in that religion.

Again, sometimes people do get better, especially considering health related miracles that are completely internal. Show me someone who’s arm grew back and I’ll move right back in leaping over the “Agnostic” category on the religious belief spectrum. Dismissing the historical evidence isn’t merely strict denialism. If it’s truly a miracle it should be unambiguous as to what happened. The miracles of Fatima for instance would be a miracle if anyone else on the planet noticed the sun dancing around as it was reported as having done. The natural explanation? That the witnesses stared at the sun too long and began to hallucinate that the ball of light was darting across their vision, as it does when you stare into a bright light.

The problem that I have with the other half of this argument is that first, it’s not philosophical–it’s ontological. Did those superstitious people believe in impossible things? Yes, they must have because it’s called “a miracle.” By definition it transcends the normal experience and must be considered prior to the event “impossible.” Otherwise it’s not a miracle it’s just a strange thing that happened. So, of course, if a group of people believe in miracles they believe in an impossible thing.

The second problem with that is if it’s being used polemical, as Chesterton is assuming it is, then what exactly is the problem? I doubted the Mayan doomsday prediction for a number of reasons and one of them was because these were the type of people who believed that blood sacrifice ensouled inanimate objects. It’s that kind of scientific thinking that led me to one facet of my skepticism regarding their accuracy in predicting the end of the world. Further, it’s not like the believer in Christian miracles is any different they just believe that one group of miracles is real while the other evidence and testimony from the various non-Christian religions is all farce and delusion. I’m merely applying their skepticism to Roman accounts of miracles, for example, to theirs.

However, I don’t necessarily reject a belief’s claim to miracle on the basis of, “just because they believe it.” That’s foolish and intellectually dishonest. I dismiss the claim when I hear it until I get some kind of evidence for it. Merely saying that X happened is not enough to convince, nor should it ever be. I treat stories of miracles the same way I treat stories about Yetis and Alien UFOs, those extraordinary claims need the extraordinary evidence to back them up.



Supporting the Vikings

September 20, 2016 1 comment

This year I think the Minnesota Vikings are going to win the Superbowl.  I know, this is a weird way to begin a post in a blog that focuses on Atheism, but bear with me it will make sense in the end.

In January I posted about how I do not watch the Superbowl and how that current state was an allegory for religion. The short of it was, that not watching the Superbowl was like not attending church, I have no interest or stake in the game, so why would I go? That does not mean however, that I walked around deriding other people for liking football, or constantly trashing the sport–until someone tries to push it on me. I’m not a “oh, you like ‘sport’s ball’ type of people–until I have to be.

Last year, I asked a friend of mine to pick a football team for me. I didn’t care which, but I thought it would be funny to get really into a team that someone else had randomly chosen at my behest. There wasn’t really a point other than as a goof. I offered up a couple of restrictions: no Bills (as they are the local team), no Patriots (didn’t want to appear contrary given that so many people hate the Patriots), and it couldn’t be a team that was the favorite of one of several people that worked or hung out at the Starbucks we were at (ruling out the Packers, 49ers, Bears, Steelers, and Dolphins). Six teams were out, everyone else was left in. By week 3 he hadn’t done it, and it was getting too late.  He claimed that he wanted someone good, and there were a lot of teams 1-2, but that was missing the point. The losing teams were fine, pick the Detroit Lions of the Cleveland Browns for all I cared, it was just pretend anyway.

This year I made my decision based on something utterly random. My phone has an app called “trivia facts” and every once in awhile the tile (because I’m the guy that owns a Windows phone) will flip over with a new fact. This one was about the Vikings’ new stadium which apparently cost more than the NASA mission to Pluto. Well, a profound waste of money but bang, I have my team–who apparently is 2-0. Alright good pick so far. So what’s the point in writing about this?

A person’s favorite football team (or any sports team, but football is the most popular in the US) is usually based on two things: location and family. No one would willingly be a Bills fan, they haven’t made the playoffs in over a decade, they are fraught with internal problems, and every year people give the same mantra “maybe next year.” Yet, I’m surrounded by Bills fans everywhere I go, except work where I have a lot of students from elsewhere. So why are people Bill’s fans, because they are from Buffalo and their families are Bills fans. You know what else works just like that: religion.

If you looked at all of the religions of the world as sports teams which one would be the best? The one with the most followers? The one that has the most die-hard fans? The scrappy underdogs? The average person is more than likely a member of their religion because it was prevalent in the region that they were born in and their families initiated them into it. I know of very few individuals that looked around the religious landscape and said, “this one is the best, I’ll be that.” Usually when they do something like that it’s for one of two reasons: as a reaction against their families which usually fades after a little bit or they are just denomination hopping. An Anglican and Catholic aren’t that different belief wise, neither is the difference between a Sunni and Shiite when you boil them down.

Yet people are fervently into their teams/religions. So much so that they stake personal identity into it, which is odd when you think about it, since they more than likely did not choose them. If all of the sudden they stood up and said, “you know what the Browns suck, so despite being from Cleveland I’m going to be an Eagles fan;” it would actually make more sense than clinging to a team that is hard to root for. If your team continually failed to show up on game day, if they continually failed to deliver what was promised, why should anyone continue to choose to pay for their tickets and/or devote time every Sunday to watching them? It doesn’t make sense. This may be a reason that fantasy football is so popular. It allows a person to still root for their hometeam but also give them a chance to win when that hometeam sucks.

Yet, every week billions of people on the planet do some kind of religious thing for a deity that never shows up and doesn’t perform the task that is asked of it. Then they jump into these weird illogical arguments about “next time” or “mysterious ways” when things go wrong. Unanswered prayers are religion’s “maybe next season.”

I’ve chosen randomly, or about as randomly as I could. My restrictions would have still been in place but I would have added the Giants to that list because of my recent move. However, I really don’t care how the Vikings do this year, I’m still indifferent, although if they do make it to the Superbowl I’ll probably actually watch it this year. In the long run I know that this is just silly and next year I’ll pick a different team (no Vikings next year–it’ll be added to the list). Besides I’m a hockey fan anyway, go Sabres (because I’m from Buffalo and used to bear a passing resemblance to their starting goalie).

Categories: atheism, sports, Uncategorized

Banning a Clothing Item

September 13, 2016 3 comments

By now, and especially if you are reading an atheist’s blog, you should be aware that various French mayors have banned an item called the “Burkini.” This is a swimsuit that covers the entire body in order to preserve a Muslim woman’s “modesty,” as opposed to the “bikini” which was the product of two clothing designers’ near-simultaneous invention in France because of cloth shortages. We know what the bikini is, there is rarely a day when I don’t randomly see at least one image of a woman in a bikini whether it’s on my homepage (which is whatever the default is on Edge) or a trip to the grocery store. The inventor of the bikini (his rival called it the atome, after the Greek “atomon” which is the smallest particle of matter that cannot be divided [literally “un-cuttable”]) said that it couldn’t be called a “bikini” unless the entire thing could be pulled through a man’s wedding ring…got to love the French.

Except, no we don’t. This whole episode regarding the banning of the Burkini is evidence. Look, I like women in bikinis. I’m being honest about this, and if you need to call me a sexist or let me know about revealing swim wear and the objectification of women there’s a comment button and I’ll happily engage in civil discourse about it. I think it’s about choice, if a woman wants to wear a bikini, she should be able to. If she wants to wear a one piece swimsuit, great; and importantly, if she wants to wear a burkini–then fine, it’s her choice.

Before you comment: yes, if it’s her choice which for the most part we should assume it is. It’s doubtful that the type of person that would mandate their wife/girlfriend must wear a burkini is likely to let them go out to a beach. Let’s just make the assumption that there’s a French Muslim that wants to swimming and chooses to wear a burkini. Why is that at all illegal?

This isn’t like the ID issue: where a Muslim woman was not allowed to have her ID picture taken while wearing a face veil. That issue is different in that the requirement to have an ID means that the card should be able to identify you. If your face is covered the card doesn’t identify you. It’s not nearly the same issue.

The good news is that the French court has struck down the ban citing it “seriously, and clearly illegally, breached the fundamental freedoms to come and go, the freedom of beliefs and individual freedom.” Their reasoning is absolutely correct, there is no danger in wearing a burkini, it doesn’t create a danger, and there is, essentially, no harm in the thing. Well maybe the harm is in how hot one might get if they lay out in all black on the French coast but the water will cool them off.

Looking at the Burkini, it’s just a full bodied wet suit with a skirt like addition at the waist. Some being tight, but form concealing, and some being loose. It’s not that hard to see why it would be uncomfortable but if a thing is uncomfortable it’s not the government’s job to enforce comfort. I’ll say it again, if a woman wants to wear one of these things, that’s up to them and I can’t fathom the reasoning behind forcing them to take it off…especially at gun point by the police.

The further problem with this is one of arbitrariness. The burka is legal in France. All Muslim women are free to wear a burka. In the town of Villeneuve-Loubet any woman, or person, that chooses to wear it enjoys the full protection of the law. However, until the ban was overturned, if that burka had slowly gotten wet at some point it became illegal to wear. What percentage of the clothing must be wet before it qualifies technically as a burkini? 51%, 40%, etc. Understand the problem? They can’t ban the street wear, but the swim wear–which is actually less concealing, they can? This is the definition of arbitrariness. If it was worn on the street, there would be no problem but cross the imaginary line of “beach” and now it’s illegal.

Don’t worry, in the battle of cultures (as some defenders of the ban have described the motivation behind it), making the women take off their clothes isn’t  going to have any repercussions. In a global conflict between the enlightened world and the theocratic one, the image of French police forcing a woman to become “immodest” is a great example for their propaganda. It is literally a thing they have been saying: that the West is intolerant of the Islamic way of life. It will be portrayed as an example of the French government forcing a woman to sin. Which, as a concept is surely not going to inflame anyone to do anything against the French.

I’m not for the concept behind the burkini. Surahs 24 and 33 are explicit that women should be covered because it invites the desire of men who are not their relatives, which is some real “blame the victim” in the way that laws regarding this are prosecuted. This is something I am against because of the inherent unfairness behind such a command. The men aren’t supposed to cover themselves, or refrain from the desire that the uncovered face creates. See, it’s not about the actual action it’s about the sin that even viewing an uncovered body creates in the mind. Just like Jesus says in Matt 5:28, the mere observation is sinful. I find the very concept of “thought crime” abhorrent, since the thought impairs nor harms any one individual.

It looks uncomfortable. It looks like it would impede swimming by slowing the individual down (not creating a danger to that person as some retroactive defenders of the ban are claiming). It also looks like it would be unnecessarily hot, especially if it’s black. However, those are matter of my personal taste and are all reasons for me not to wear one. In the interests of liberty and equality banning this item is ridiculous.

It’s Because of Emotion

September 8, 2016 2 comments

One of things I’ve mentioned over the course of this blog is that for the last five semesters (2.5 years) is that I teach a class titled, “Conspiracy Theories, Critical Thinking, and Skepticism.” I try and impart to the students the ability to discern a conspiracy theory from a historical fact, from an actual hypothesis about what is going on, and how to identify the beginning of a conspiracy theory before the person finishes speaking. There are many “tells.” For the most part the class runs pretty well, I used to be a conspiracy theorist back in the 90s (when you had to go to the library for information) and my personal experience informs a great deal of my psychological insight into the phenomenon.

However, in the 90s, there wasn’t social media. You had to write a letter to the editor in hopes of reaching a wide range of people, and then hope that it was printed in the paper. Barring that you had to consult the alt-media, the city free papers, and such. So there’s one facet of the conspiracy angle that I don’t understand but I may have had an insight into it purely by accident. I can tell you exactly who, on my friend’s list, is a Trump voter/Bernie voter/or ultra fundamentalist Christian. I can say who exactly believes there is a war on cops, a war on Christianity, a war on Christmas–and I can do this because they constantly post in their news feed about it. A study in Plos One by Bessi et. al (2012) reported that the more one believes in conspiracy theories the more aggressive they are on social media…by a long shot. If they are true believers they have to remind themselves and others repeatedly of the various things that they believe or have “discovered.” This is the thing that I don’t understand.

If you look at someone who believes in conspiracies involving GMOs, Big Pharma, or any pseudo-health claims, they constantly post. However if you don’t believe those things and rest your knowledge of health claims on what the accepted medical science believes (or biology) then you tend not to mention it. As a skeptic I’ll ocassionally post something crazy that I’ve read on the internet regarding acupuncture or raw milk because I think the beliefs are daffy. If I find a belief that is particularly dangerous, I’ll post a warning (don’t use black salve for instance). With the exception of posting refuting articles from Snopes, I tend to leave it alone. What’s the point really? I’m not going to constantly post things that are real and not based on opinion: that’s actually boring.

That leaves us with the having to assume the motives behind the aggressive posting. The first hypothesis is that they are trying to do the right thing. They discovered the truth and are trying to let everyone else know what it is. That’s the actual best case scenario. However, given that they often caption their posts with insults to those that don’t believe it we should throw that option out. If they are trying to warn us about the destruction of Christian America due to the influx of Muslim ISIS immigrants then why insult “libtards” for being stupid? This kind of behavior leads me to the second hypothesis.

This is that they want to feel superior to everyone else. They found out the truth, they are special, and the rest of us are morons for buying into the official story. It’s a unique dynamic in American political discourse with these people. It’s not that I, am just coming from a different perspective, it’s that I actually am un-American for not agreeing with them. It’s not that I support a different view of the country, but that in not supporting Trump I might as well join ISIS and blow up a building for voting for anyone else. They want to portray themselves as the Red Dawn Wolverines fighting the oncoming hordes of (Muslims, Atheists, Abortionists,…whoever). However these posts lack the type of smugness that is usually reserved for people that think they are correct. I admit that I post with some smugness when I post about the record levels of crime in this country (that record being low) because I have the facts on my side. Yet these people aren’t doing that either. This leads me to the third hypothesis.

They need constant reminding of their beliefs. The echo chamber cannot sustain itself by one voice, eventually that dies out. What the constant posting does is keep that echo going, it keeps reminding them, “the thing your saying is true, because it is being said.” If we assume the counter-factual, that Monsanto really is killing natural farmers and giving people GMOs so that they (insert whatever desired result here) then these people would be persecuted. Yet they aren’t, so they have to scream their opinions as loudly as possible so that when someone tells them to be quiet they can point as if to say “see, that person wants me to suppress my speech.” Otherwise it won’t happen.

Look at the “war on religion.” It’s not happening, there isn’t one church that the government has closed by virtue of being a church. President Obama hasn’t ordered the execution of Christians, people still celebrate Christmas, but to hear them tell it they have to hide the crosses they display on their necks, in their houses, and in front of their churches. The facts don’t fit their worldview. However, if they can shout down the facts, and get like minded people to shout down the facts, their anger and desire to be persecuted can continue to fester. Because all of it, all of the conspiracy beliefs, the religious persecution beliefs, it’s all an emotional creation. The objective world does not conform to it, and once their aggression subsides they will be forced to realize the truth: that none of these beliefs are real.