Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Truth Seeking

In a courtroom, neither the prosecution nor the defense are trying to discover the truth. They are trying to make their narrative of what happened as convincing as possible to the jury. Back when Serial was a thing, I remember an episode in which they broke down the location of the cell phone used by the guy who was later convicted of murder. They did this by looking at which cell towers the phone pinged throughout the day. This data was used by the prosecution, placing the phone at or near the crime scene when the crime was committed...but the data wasn’t used transparently. The phone pinged the tower near the crime scene, then it pinged a different location, then it pinged the first tower, then somewhere else. In reality the phone could have been there or not, since they weren’t sure exactly when the crime took place. The prosecution only presented the pings that helped their case and omitted the rest. The defense could have presented the rest, but I don’t think they did.

So why do I bring this up? Well, it’s how I see disagreements play out, especially on the Internet. One side looks up data they think helps their narrative and present it. If they find anything that goes against their narrative, they omit it. I don’t think this is ideal for a courtroom, but at least then there is a jury. In the case of these disagreements, the defense is actually trying to convince the prosecution and vice versa. Fat chance. In the case of public debate this becomes less asinine, as the public, if they are indeed watching, can be considered the jury. I still wish it was another way.

Instead of thinking we’re in a courtroom, let’s think we are in a lab. The scientific method was established in an effort to remove biases and discover how the world is independent of perspective. As peers we can review each other’s factual conclusions and leave opinion at the door. We should look at every tower pinged and work out their statistical significance.



...but maybe you already know the truth. What you believe is right.



That might be, but know that the other side of the argument is often just as convinced of this as you are--whether the topic be religion, politics, or the merits of country music. I can’t ask you to be open to everything, that would be hypocritical. There are things I’ve been exposed to hundreds of times, examined the evidence from all angles, and thought long and hard about; but when something new is brought up, even if it is just a new layer of something I already thought I knew, I try to consider it fairly. Don’t seek to confirm, seek to understand.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sin or Die

Is incest a sin? If you are representative of my primary audience you are probably saying “no.” Nothing is a sin. Sin isn’t a thing. However, think about it from a believer’s perspective...is incest a sin? I did a small, informal poll and 9 out of 10 Christians believe incest is a sin. That means one of two things to the Christian faith in particular. Let’s look at the possibilities.


Either

God has set up at least two situations in which his creations had to sin in order to not go extinct. Of course, I’m referencing Adam and Eve giving birth to children who then had to have sex with either each other or their parents and Noah and his nuclear family who faced the same choice. The only moral thing to do for our ancestors, from the Christian perspective, was to let the species die off. In fact, since both times the need for incest applied to all but the most asexually reproducing creatures, they all had to sin or die.

Or

Incest is a sin now, but wasn’t in Adam’s and Noah’s time. This gets God out of the position of creating something that he either wanted to die or disobey, questionable motivations for a loving father, but it means that sin is variable. It means that morality is not always constant. This notion throws a wrench into the apologetic premise that moral facts are absolute and moral values are objective.

Christian apologists tell me that certain things are morally right while others are morally wrong not because society defines them as such or even that they conform to God’s whims--but because they are facts of the nature of things. To them, God’s nature informs reality’s nature and God is unchanging. Assuming Christianity is true, incest switching values is profound. Does it mean God’s nature changes? No, it logically cannot. A “nature” is the way one is, without the subject deciding to be that way. If God’s nature changed, who are we saying changed it? They aren’t likely to say a greater deity and if they did, it would move this conundrum to that God. No, it means that the Christian God really does arbitrarily decide good and evil and, at least in this case, flipped the script. Why? Mysterious ways, man. Mysterious ways.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Save My Soul Via Government-Run Gambling Challenge

The religious ask me from time to time what would convince me that God exists. I have written about various ways that I would be convinced, but they all lack in detail and specifics. Today I’m offering one example of exactly what would convince me in a challenge that would likely save my soul, be compelling to readers of my blog, and almost certainly make the news as a story that would be picked up by Christians everywhere.

The steps you, the believer, must take:

  1. Ask your God for the winning Mega Millions lotto numbers for Tuesday, 5-5-15.
  2. Give me the numbers privately.

I’ll take it from here. I’ll use my own dollar to play your numbers on that date. The odds of those numbers hitting, while not impossible to hit by chance, would be a sufficient sign to me that God gave you the numbers and I would therefore join your faith. If they win, I will donate the jackpot to a charity affiliated with your (our) religion. Yes, I imagine a guy donating his winnings to charity because he says that he was tipped off by God would make the news.

Why I think this is a reasonable challenge.

  1. Most religious apologists already say God makes his existence known via a similar trick of probability in their fine tuning argument. However, the fine tuning argument is only meaningful under a variety of assumptions that make the odds that we are here unlikely. No assumptions will be needed in this challenge. It will be a very straight forward beating of the odds. Obviously when this hits the news, it wouldn’t convince everyone because, well, someone has to win the lottery, but it will convince me and I’ll do what I can to convince others.
  2. I’ve heard that prayer works best when they are not made selfishly. Praying for the winning numbers in this case is not selfish. (It might be the first time in history praying for the winning lotto ticket isn’t selfish.) You are praying for someone else to win (me) who will give all the money to charity and use the experience to spread the good news.
  3. Biblically speaking, God occasionally proves himself--whether it be a resurrected Jesus appearing to doubters to staffs turning into snakes to convince the authorities. I'm asking for a much lower-key miracle here.

What if the challenge fails?

If it fails, it fails. I remain an atheist and you remain a whatever. I don’t ask anything of you beyond an honest acknowledgement that we tried and it didn’t work. Ideally, you'll also think on that.

The untrusting, less interesting alternative.

After buying the ticket and before the drawing I will post the vendor from which I bought the ticket. If there is a winning ticket, it will be a matter of record where the ticket was sold and you'll all know if it could have been me. That said, if you still don’t trust that I will keep up my end of the challenge, you can post the God-given number you are going to play publicly in the comments and you can donate the money to charity yourself. It won’t be as good a story and you might have to split the winnings with someone else who plays your posted numbers, but it’s your call. I save a dollar.

Rules and regulations

I will buy multiple tickets if needed, but I am only accepting one challenge per faith. So if a Catholic gives me numbers I won't accept numbers from another Catholic. If the Catholic God wants to convert me, he should be able to do it in one-shot.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Subjective Scope of the Natural

God, or any sufficiently powerful supernatural entity (if such a being exists), could have designed us to operate miraculously. We could see through pores in our skin, hear via golden halos, and float from place to place--all without any mechanism for how our bodies function. Instead we have a naturally comprehensible biology of which we have a deep understanding. Why would God make us, and all organisms, in such a way when he could have just as easily made magic-powered life?

I wonder why God, if he exists, would make the workings of anything subject to human discovery. I say anything, but really it could be everything. We have yet to find something that science is fundamentally incapable of explaining. Before the apologists chime in, yes, I realize there are aspects of nature we have yet to understand, but that doesn’t show that they are fundamentally beyond natural understanding. Take something like human consciousness. We knew next to nothing about it in the recent past, but now we know of neurons and synapses. We know roughly where in the brain is most important for memory and cognition. We know how chemicals affect thoughts, perception and personality. It seems everything is within our ability to grasp.

I know that these questions I pose may be unanswerable. I don’t expect the believer to know God’s motivation for making things how they are, even if God exists. Mysterious ways and all that. But consider this, believers: since everything that God created, if he did, seemingly operates by an intelligible natural process, why reject evolution by natural selection as the process responsible for the diversity and apparent design of life? If the evidence supports it, and it does, denying it outright because it isn't miraculous is a bizarre exception considering all the things you accept that are not magical. Evolution happens and the process is unguided by any external agency--embrace this knowledge or ask yourself why God would make this one aspect of reality supernatural. Or ask God. If he answers, let me know.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Tipping Doubt

Mary Baker Eddy
The last god I believed in was the version of Jesus seen through the eyes of Mary Baker Eddy, an American women who attributed overcoming health issues to faith healing after homeopathic “medicine” failed her. The religion she founded, called Christian Science, framed sin and sickness as errors of thought and framed thought as an expression of Mind, Soul, or Spirit--all of which she considered synonyms for God. Jesus was considered the first and ultimate Christian Science practitioner, a skill and awareness he passed on to his disciples, who also healed the sick in the Bible. The healings eventually became less common as the teachings of Christ were muddled over time. Luckily, Ms. Eddy got us all back on track...or so the CS narrative goes.

I bring all this up because I’ve been thinking about the catalyst of my journey to atheism. Was there one event that made me turn the corner from believer to nonbeliever? The answer for me is the same as most of us, no. A series of many events progressively inspired me drop my faith. That said, I remember one place, in particular, where my doubt reached a tipping point.

I was 16 years old at the then biggest (only?) Christian Science summer camp. The camp had a CS practitioner on staff. If you think of God as faith healing medicine, a CS practitioner is basically a faith healing doctor--prescribing God. Ideally, a Christian Scientist can learn to be their own faith healing doctor or a practitioner for others, but if one isn’t comfortable in receiving the spirit or working out their own problems, guys like the one at camp are there to help. Interestingly, the camp also had a nurse. Not a faith healing nurse, a nurse nurse. Apparently CS magic is great for healing invisible ailments of subjective pain, but isn’t trusted to reset a broken arm when there is a possibility of a less-than-faithful parent suing the camp.

This is problematic because Christian Science Sunday School taught me that this faith is unique among all others in that they are evidence-based. One can prove the efficacy of the Christian Science process by it’s ability to heal, but if prayer works consistently, why the safety net? The presence of the nurse weighed on me. When, during the various physical activities common to most summer camps, I injured myself. I tested my ability to faith heal in earnest. I fucking hurt so I fucking prayed. This wasn’t the first time I attempted to heal myself. At home, I got rid of a few headaches, or so I thought, and failed to get rid of a few others. My immune system and confirmation bias convinced me the system worked. There, at camp, when the pain didn’t subside, I doubted. I thought back to all those other “healings” and wondered if my success rate was any higher than chance. If the length my headaches naturally lasted was, well, just how long they lasted--regardless of me asking JC for an assist.

I stayed at camp and continued making friends and eating granola, but I took in the remainder of the Christian Science material through a new found skeptical filter. When I got home, I kept going to Sunday School more for the cute girl in my class than for any spiritual insight. The questions compounded until I learned to value the evidence-based belief my church professed, and decided that they weren’t the ones able to provide it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bandwagon Belief

In my experience talking to Christians I’ve learned to not assume I know the beliefs of the individual...with a few exceptions. Every Christian I know believes that Jesus Christ existed, that he was crucified, and that he rose from the dead. From there they vary wildly. A big disagreement is over which Biblical bits are historical and which are fictional stories--beliefs that are dependent on their personal credulity or that of their chosen church.

The resurrection of Christ is so indoctrinated into their culture that it’s unquestioned and taken for granted even when talking snakes and planetary floods are considered too outside the realm of possibility to be seen as factual. This cultural familiarity somehow makes ideas plausible. So lets imagine something unfamiliar.

“Woman gives birth to squid!” How’s that for a headline? Imagine you read that, not as a modern headline, but as an event expressed in a book over a thousand years old. The obvious context is that every woman you’ve ever known has given birth to a human boy or girl, every account from every person since you were born bares out the identical report, and every historical record of births since modern bookkeeping confirms that humans give birth to humans. So would you believe that a woman from antiquity bore an ink-squirting, tentacled baby? Given that, biologically speaking, there is no mechanism for such a birth to be possible, would a Christian believe it?

I doubt neither you nor that Christian would accept such a claim, because it’s absurd, sure, but more importantly it's novel. There is no cultural familiarity with the notion of squid-babies (outside of that one scene in Men in Black.) If everyone you knew happened believed that old squid's tale from childhood....suddenly it becomes plausible. Credulity becomes communal when fitting in is praised over critical thought. I think that's a given. How we change that requires more thought.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Why I Talk About God

Why do I talk about about something I don’t believe in? I get this a enough that I should probably address it no matter how obvious the answer are to me. Yes, answers--plural. Here’s a bunch of answers, all of which apply, some more than others, depending on the context.
  1. Because gods, as concepts, are some of the greatest influencers of our age or any age. The majority of people use the concept of one or more gods to inform how they socialize, how they raise their families, how they vote, and their overall behavior. I am one of the people they and their families socialize with and the people they vote for also govern me. For this reason, I have an interest to lessen religion’s influence when it could otherwise negatively impact me unchecked.
  2. Because believers often tell me they are interested in the truth. Given that, I am providing, to the best of my knowledge, what they seek. I recognize that I may be wrong about some things, in which case something they provide could bring me closer to the truth, which is great since I am a truth seeker myself. Sharing experiences, data, and philosophies in a marketplace ideas, rather than in an echo chamber, is the best way I’ve found to examine the truth of claims.
  3. Because I wish someone talked about the possibility of being an atheist to me earlier in my life. Growing up exclusively among Christians makes the notion that I could choose to be anything else untenable. Free will is a cherished concept to Christians so another option should be openly provided in order to express that will--especially to children.
  4. Because I find the topic interesting. Since no single religion is a majority on this planet yet most people are religious, it means that the majority of people in the world believe in stories every bit as fantastical and made-up as The Lord of the Rings as if they were historically accurate. Everyone must admit this. The psychology of the human mind that allows us to be so willing to be believe wild fictions should be understood by all, even if it isn't directly applied to one's own beliefs.
Why do you promote your worldview?