Showing posts with label jesus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jesus. Show all posts

Monday, August 24, 2020

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, February 15, 2017

What Would I Do If I Were God?

It’s easy to say that I’d abolish pain and suffering. It’s easy to say I’d end death by making everyone immortal. Too easy to make everyday sunny and meet every desire, answer every prayer, but are any of these the best move?

Living life as I perceive it makes me think that taking away failures would lessen the satisfaction of successes. Making a universe in which all is given abolishes the journey because the destination is here. Nothing is learned because all is known and there is nothing to gain because all is possessed. Would such an existence be a blessing or a curse? I honestly don’t know.

You and I can only ponder such things from the perspective of how things are and I’m concerned that such an outlook limits my answer. History has shown us that if an individual knows of nothing else, what they know is acceptable. Enslaved groups do not revolt when indoctrinated into the belief that enslavement is all there can be for them. A battered wife stays in the relationship when they believe all relationships play out the same.

I’ll try my best to think outside the confines of my programming regardless. The best way to do this might be to forego the stimuli that activates the reward centers of my brain and go straight for the chemistry. Serotonin and dopamine are responsible for the positive feelings we have eating our favorite foods or falling in love for example. As God, I could just make brains that have a constant flow of such chemicals. Thinking, per se, would not be needed. Everyone would just feel the best they could feel. Already, I think I’ve one-upped the Garden of Eden. It’s a material fix, with brains and chemicals, but it doesn’t have to be. I could just as easily make disembodied feeling entities feel the best they could feel. If max-positive feeling is my goal, I would make the maximum quantity of these feeling entities.

Is universal, best-possible feeling the goal? I don’t know, maybe. One could argue whatever I deem as the goal, as God, is objectively the goal. The Christian might say their idea of heaven is better, but I don’t see how. If there is something better, I would just make that the universal state of the maximum amount of entities. This trumps the Christian God’s reward for the faithful twofold. One, I cut out the need for hardships before the reward and fast track everyone to the goods. Two, Jesus and/or his dad seemingly limits his creations’ numbers to those who existed on earth from Genesis to Revelations and I would simply bring the maximally best feelings to an infinitely larger number.

So, if joy/happiness/love or any combination of positivity is the goal, it’s safe to say my divinity is preferable to the gods of the past. Let’s take a turn and say that instead accomplishment or the fulfillment of free will is the goal. Jesus’ and/or his dad gave us limited free will if he/they made things as they are. I am free to move forward, backward, left, right, at any angular degree really. I can go up a little by jumping, down a little by ducking. I can’t fly by will alone, but I can with will and modern technology. Still, for generations before me, they could not fly regardless of their will. The tech, hell, the materials, were not available. Today, my movement is still restricted. I can only move in or perceive of three spacial dimensions even though there could easily exist more. I am bound by the arrow of time forcing me to move into the future. As God, I would grant unlimited free will. Anything my creations will, they are able to do. Anything they wish to accomplish, they can. This circles back to my concern that the ability to accomplish anything with ease diminishes the value in the accomplishment, but if my creation wills itself to value the accomplishment more, they simply will.

After the maximal thought, emotion, and will has been granted, what else is there? If somehow I, as God, am still more perfect than my creations, then I will make them all God retroactively. That might be the final answer. If I was God, we would all be God. Take that, Yahweh.

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.

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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Darwin Day Exchange

Darwin Day was last week, or as religious apologists call it "question evolution day." In that spirit, I posed a question to those not sold on the theory.

What aspect(s) of evolution do you have a problem with?
  • Is it that you don't believe in heritability?
  • Is it that you don't believe natural selection is a sufficient mechanism to propagate beneficial genes and weed out harmful or useless genes?
  • Is it that you don't believe in genetic mutation?
There was one apologist who answered saying that they didn't believe in heritability--he actually didn't believe that traits were based down from parent to child. I asked if he noticed that black parents typically have black kids and that tall parents usually have tall kids, but to that he said anecdotal evidence can't be used to show anything. Luckily, only one respondent went to this extreme a denial.

There was another apologist who didn't believe natural selection is a sufficient mechanism for the theory. I asked him to hear out this simplification of the process:
You have a random selection of rabbits in a room with the only food source on the ceiling. They all need to get up on their hind legs and stretch to try and get the food, but only about half can actually reach. Very quickly the ones who can't reach starve, most before mating. The remaining rabbits go about their lives, stretching for their food every day. Eventually they have kids. Given that the mating pool is taller rabbits, the next generation of bunnies inherit traits from taller rabbits--making the new generation taller, on average, than the group we started off with.
Say we very slowly raise the ceiling, weeding out rabbits that don't meet the new minimum height to eat. Each generation would be taller and taller as the shorter die off. Given that mutations occur, (which this apologist admitted do occur) some rabbits might even be taller or shorter or more or less stretchable or better or worse jumpers than the heritable gene pool suggests. Those with an advantage, the better jumpers, the more stretchable, the taller, whatever then mate and pass on their new mutation while useless mutations die off.
The apologist actually agreed that this would happen. So...does he believe in evolution now? Of course not. Once he couldn't deny evolution on a scale of a lot of generations he opted to deny evolution on a scale of a whole lot of generations. The vague micro- versus macro-evolution divide.

Yet another apologist argued that mutations and heredity happen, but only as changes or improvements on preexisting traits. In his words "this can give you blue eyes instead of brown but it cannot create eyes." He then went on to list the various cells that are absolutely required for a working photoreceptor in an effort to show that multiple mutations with no benefit would need to exist for generations before anything light sensitive could kick off the evolution of an eye...then I pointed out single-celled organisms that exists today, euglena, that demonstrates phototaxis (movement according to a light source) via a photoreceptor literally called an eyespot. At this point his brain seemed to get caught in a feed back loop.

There are many ways to deny evolution, just none that I've found are internally consistent or based on reality. For a reading of the exchange that prompted this post click here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

God Offers No Choice

God's judgment, as seen by most theists, can only be just if those judged choose to sin or be saved. I believe we are not free to choose anything if our present and future is known by an omniscient being. Allow me to show my work by analogy.

Just before his death, Lincoln seemed to have made a choice to go to Ford's Theatre. From the President's perspective he felt he had a choice, but look at it from our perspective. Lincoln's action is an historical event which is known. Lincoln, essentially as a character in a history book, has no choice but to go to Ford's Theatre because any action on his part has been acted. Even if we went back to Lincoln's time, armed with our fore-knowledge, Lincoln would still be bound to the actions that we know he will make (providing we don't interfere, of course.) This means that Lincoln's perceived choices, and our own, are an illusion if a being is capable of viewing us as history either in the present, future, or independently of time.

Set up a camera on someone. They will do a variety of things that you probably wouldn't be able to predict in the moment if you were there. However, if you watch the video later, then watch it again, upon second watching you will be able to predict perfectly their every move. The person on camera, while acting, perceives free will from their perspective. However, the recording of the person, from the perspective of the omniscient video watcher, is not free to act. To anyone who knows our future, we are essentially a recording.

A being with all-knowledge of an event, whether it be God or a well-studied time traveler, would view the present as a history or recording. There are no surprises to this being because there is only one way for the events to unfold. Each person involved follows only one path. No choices are made because choice deals with the availability of options and there are none.

If choice is only an illusion of our limited perspective as this shows, then a god's sentence of eternal reward or eternal punishment is exacted upon helpless people with no ability to change their fate. It is exactly as fair and just as arbitrarily and immediately sending newborn babies to heaven of hell.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Faith vs. Force

If I believed the Force was real as completely as theists say they believe their religion is real. I'd be out staring at rocks all fricking day thinking "Go up! Fly! Levitate dammit!" I'd be reading the grocery lists of Jedis--anything to get a handle on this power. Hell, if it didn't work out after a couple years of daily training, I'd even give the Sith a shot.

Christians claim to have complete faith in the word of God, but generally don't even spend the time to learn the original languages in which the Bible was written. They read translations of translations, sure (or more commonly listen to someone else's interpretation once a week), but I don't find that convincing. Maybe they aren't so convinced. Maybe we aren't so different.

I was a Christian Scientist, a denomination that taught God's power and influence was more attainable then the average flavor of Christianity. If I lived by the values of Jesus I could, with complete faith, do as Christ did with God working through me. The analogue to Star Wars is very appropriate. Live like a Jedi and when you truly believe you can lift a rock with your mind, it will happen. JC's disciples were the Jedi of the Bible, healing folks long after the ascension.

I tried healing myself and others as a Christian Scientist. Surprise, surprise, it didn't work. The theological out for my failure was that I didn't have enough faith that it would work. I agreed there. More than that, I knew I was fundamentally incapable of complete faith in what I found unbelievable. So I embraced my disbelief and here I am.

Sometimes I think the vast majority of theists, if not all, are also incapable of complete faith in their supernatural stories. I would think an underlying skepticism in that which is contrary to experience is a feature of human nature. Surely there is selective pressure for it, evolutionarily speaking. The question is, how to get them to embrace their disbelief and move on?

Or maybe they just need to believe a little harder and start levitating rocks. ;-)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

God's Nature: Moral or Imaginary?

I recently joined a Google+ community meant to educate people on counter apologetics. This was my first post.

Here is a way to dismantle the moral argument for God without getting into the subjective vs. objective morality debate.

A more traditional take on the Euthyphro dilemma, a classic problem of the moral argument for God:
If God chooses what is good, does God have a reason for the actions to which he assigns a good value? If so, why can humans not come to the same reason? If not, then someone (God, in this case) arbitrarily assigned good and bad values, which is exactly what theists think is the problem with subjective morality. 
Modern apologists rarely say God decided anything, rather they claim what is morally good is simply part of God's nature. They expect this negates the dilemma. It doesn't. For this reason I recommend presenting a formation more like below to stay with the times.
If God's nature is good and it could be no other way...who made God's nature as such? If someone made God's nature good, then we should probably worship that God...if only we could know why that God made good what it is. There's a potential infinite regress of moral responsibility here which explains nothing. However, if no one made God's nature good, then it's possible for beings to have good natures without a higher being making them as such. Therefore, the same can apply to us.
It's a small distinction that most people should be able to come to on their own, but apologists are highly motivated to not think about how their arguments might fail. We need to show them, repeatedly.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Why History isn't Scientific (And Why It Can Still Tell Us About the Past)

The following is a post from Tim O'Neill who is much more knowledgeable than I on matters of history, but I'm still pretty sure I have him beat in James Bond trivia.

"History sucks."

In April last year Grundy, the usual writer of this blog, posted History Isn't My Area, commenting on the release of Bart Ehrman's critique of the Jesus Myth hypothesis, Did Jesus Exist?: A Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike the majority of actual historians, many prominent atheists find Jesus Mythicism convincing and many of them are unhappy with the generally sceptical and highly renowned Ehrman for criticizing this idea. Grundy, for his part, stated frankly "I honestly have little knowledge as to whether or not Jesus existed", though added "I tend to think he did". That said, he made it clear why the overwhelming consensus of historians and other relevant scholars that the Jesus Myth idea is junk was underwhelming for him:
"History sucks. Okay, that’s unfair, but it was never my subject. My confidence of the accuracy of historical events goes down exponentially with the paper trail. The idea that history is written by the victors highlights the biases of the past. Books are burned. Records fade. Who should I trust for an accurate portrayal of events two thousand years ago?"
Since history actually is my area, I responded by making some critical comments on this attitude and some points about how history , as an academic discipline, is studied. Grundy, unlike many so-called "rationalists" I've encountered over the years, was happy to listen, and he invited me to expand on my points in this guest post.

Atheists and Historical Illiteracy

I should begin, however, by pointing out that I am an atheist. I have been an atheist for my entire adult life, am a paid up member of several atheist and sceptical organizations and have a 21 year online record of posting to discussions as an unbeliever. I note this because I've found that when I begin to criticise my fellow atheists and their grasp of history or historiography, people tend to assume I must be some kind of theist apologist (which doesn't follow at all, but this happens all the time anyway).

After 30+ years of observing and taking part in debates about history with many of my fellow atheists I can safely claim that most atheists are historically illiterate. This is not particular to atheists: they tend to be about as historically illiterate as most people, since historical illiteracy is pretty much the norm. But it does mean that when most (not all) atheists comment about history or, worse, try to use history in debates about religion, they are usually doing so with a grasp of the subject that is stunted at about high school level.

This is hardly surprising, given that most people don't study history past high school. But it means their understanding of any given historical person, subject or event is (like that of most people), based on half-remembered school lessons, perhaps a TV documentary or two and popular culture: mainly novels and movies. Which is why most atheists (like most people) have a grasp of history which is, to be brutally frank, largely crap.

Worse, this also means that most atheists (again, like most people) have a grasp of how history is studied and the techniques of historical analysis and synthesis which is also stunted at high school level - i.e. virtually non-existent. With a few laudable exceptions, high school history teachers still tend to reduce history to facts and dates organized into themes or broad topics. How we can know what happened in the past, with what degree of certitude we can know it and the techniques used to arrive at these conclusions are rarely more than touched on at this level. This means that when the average atheist (yet again, like the average person generally) grasps that our knowledge of the past is not as cut and dried and clear as Mr Wilkins the history teacher gave us to understand, they tend to reject the whole thing as highly uncertain at best or subjective waffle at worst. Or, as Grundy put it, as "crap".

This rejection can be more pronounced in atheists, because many (not all) come to their atheism via a study of science. Science seems very certain compared to history. You can make hypotheses and test them in science. You can actually prove things. Scientific propositions are, by definition, falsifiable. Compared to science, history can seem like so much hand-waving, where anyone can pretty much argue anything they like.

History and Science

In fact, history is very much a rigorous academic discipline, with its own rules and methodology much like the hard sciences. This does not mean it is a science. It is sometimes referred to as one, especially in Europe, but this is only in the broader sense of the word; as in "a systematic way of ordering and analysing knowledge". But before looking at how the historical method works, it might be useful to look at how sciences differ from it.

The hard sciences are founded on the principle of probabilistic induction. A scientist uses an inductive or "bottom up" approach to work from observing specific particulars ("mice injected with this drug put on less fat") to general propositions ("the drug is reducing their appetite"). These propositions are falsifiable via empirical testing to rule out other explanations of the particulars ("the drug is increasing their metabolism" or "those mice are more stressed by being stuck with syringes") and so can be tested.

This is all possible in the hard sciences because of some well-established laws of cause and effect that form a basis for this kind of induction. If something is affecting the mice in my examples above today, it will affect them in the same way tomorrow, all things being equal. This allows a scientist to work from induction to make an assessment of probable causation via empirical assessment and do so with a high degree of confidence. And their assessment can be confirmed by others because the empirical measures are controlled and repeatable.

Unfortunately, none of this works for the study of the past. Events, large and small, occur and then are gone. A historian can only assess information about them from traces they may, if we are lucky, leave behind. But unlike a researcher from the hard sciences, a historian can't run the fall of the Western Roman Empire through a series of controlled lab experiments. He can't even observe the events, as a zoologist might observe the behaviour of a gorilla band, and draw conclusions. And there aren't well-defined laws and principles at work (apart from in a very broad and subjective sense) that allow him to, say, simulate the effects of the rise of the printing press or decide on the exact course of the downfall of Napoleon the way a theoretical physicist can with the composition of a distant galaxy or the formation of a long dead star.

All this leads some atheists, who have fallen in to the fallacy of scientism and reject anything that can't be definitively "proven", to reject the idea of any degree of certainty about the past. This is an extreme position and it's rarely a consistent one. As I've noted to some who have claimed this level of historical scepticism, I find it hard to believe they maintain this position when they read the newspaper, even though they should be just as sceptical about being able to know about a car accident yesterday as they are about knowing about a revolution 400 years ago.

The Historical Method

Just because history is not a hard science does not mean it can't tell us about the past or can't do so with a degree of certainty. Early historians like Herodotus established the beginnings of the methods used by modern historical researchers, though historians only began to develop a systematic methodology based on agreed principles from the later eighteenth century onwards, using the techniques of Barthold Niebuhr (1776-1831) and Leopold van Ranke (1795-1886).

The Historical Method is based on three fundamental steps, each of which has its own techniques:

  1. Heuristic - This is the identification of relevant material to use as sources of information. These can range from the obvious, such as a historian of the time's account of events he witnessed personally, to the much less obvious, like a medieval manor's account book detailing purchases for the estate. Everything from archaeological finds to coins to heraldry can be relevant here. The key word here is "relevant", and there is a high degree of skill in working out which sources of information are pertinent to the subject in question.
  2. Criticism - This is the process of appraisal of the source material in the light of the question being answered or subject being examined. It involves such things as determining the level of "authenticity" of a source (Is it what is seems to be?), its "integrity" (Can its account be trusted? What are its biases?), its context (What genre is it? Is it responding or reacting to another source? Is it using literary tropes that need to be treated with scepticism?) Material evidence, such are archaeology, architecture, art , coins etc needs to be firmly put into context to be understood. Documentary sources also need careful contextualisation - the social conditions of their production, their polemical intent (if any), their reason for production (more important for a political speech than a birth certificate, for example) , their intended audience and the background and biases of their writer (if known) all have to be taken into account.
  3. Synthesis and Exposition - This is the formal statement of the findings from steps 1 and 2, which each finding supported by reference to the relevant evidence.

The key difference between this method and those used in the hard sciences is that the researcher lays all this material, its analysis and his conclusions out systematically, but the conclusions are a subjective assessment of likelihood rather than an objective statement of probabilistic induction. This subjectivity is what many trained in the sciences find alien about history and lead them to reject history as insubstantial.

But the key thing to understand here is that the historian is not working toward an absolute statement about what definitely happened in the past, since that is generally impossible except on trivial points (eg there is no doubt that Adolf Hitler was born on April 20 1889). A historian instead works to present what is called "the argument to the best explanation". In other words, the argument that best accounts for the largest amount of relevant evidence with the least number of suppositions. This means that the Principle of Parsimony, also known as Occam's Razor, is a key tool in historical analysis; historians always favour the most parsimonious interpretation that takes account of the most available evidence.

For example, regarding the existence of Jesus, it is far more parsimonious to conclude that Christianity's figure of "Jesus Christ" evolved out of the ideas of the followers of a historical Jewish preacher, since all of our earliest information tells us that this "Jesus Christ" was a historical Jewish preacher who had been executed circa 30 CE. People have tried to propose alternative origins for the figure of "Jesus Christ", positing an earlier Jewish sect that believed in a purely celestial figure who became "historicised" into an earthly, historical Jesus later. But there is no evidence of any such proto-Christian sect and no reason such a sect would exist and then vanish without leaving any trace in the historical record. This is why historians find these "Jesus Myth" hypotheses uncompelling - they are not the most parsimonious way of looking at the evidence and require us to imagine ad hoc, "what if" style suppositions to keep them from collapsing.

Ways Atheists (Sometimes) Get History Wrong

Managing this process of systematic historical analysis requires training, practice and a degree of skill. Without these, it's very easy to do something that looks a bit like historical analysis and arrive at flawed conclusions.

Take the initial heuristic process, for example. I've come across many atheists who don't accept that a historical Jesus existed on the grounds that "there are no contemporary references to him and all references to him are later hearsay" or even that "there are no eyewitness accounts of his career". So they rule out any evidence we do have referring to him on the basis that it is not contemporary and/or from eyewitnesses. But if we ruled out any reference to an ancient, medieval or pre-modern person or event on these grounds, we'd effectively have to abandon the study of early history: we don't have contemporary evidence for most people and events in the ancient world, so this would make almost all of our sources invalid, which is clearly absurd. Given that we have no eyewitness or contemporary sources for far more prominent figures, such as Hannibal, expecting them for a peasant preacher like Jesus is clearly ridiculous. No historian of the ancient world would regard this as a valid historical heuristic.

Atheists can often make similar elementary errors in the criticism of sources as well. There is no shortage of lurid material on the horrors of the Inquisition, with whole books detailing vile tortures and giving accounts of hundreds of thousands of wretched victims being consigned to the flames by the Catholic Church. In the past, nineteenth century writers took these sources at face value and until the early twentieth century this was essentially the story of the Inquisition to be found in textbooks, especially in the English-speaking (i.e. substantially Protestant) sphere.

But much of this was based on sources that had severe biases - mainly sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant polemical material, usually produced in England which, as a political, religious and economic enemy of Spain, was hardly going to produce unbiased accounts of the Spanish church and crown's use of the Inquisition. Uncritical use of this material gives a warped, enemy's-eye-view of the Inquisition that has been substantially overturned by more careful analysis of the source material and the Inquisition's own records. The result is that it is now known that in the 160 years of its operation in Spain, the Inquisition resulted in 3,000-5,000 executions, not the hundreds of thousands alleged by uncritical nineteenth century writers like Henry Charles Lea. Basing an argument on the earlier, uncritical accounts of the Inquisition might suit many atheists' agendas, but it would be bad history nonetheless.

Finally, historical synthesis and exposition requires at least an attempt at a high degree of objectivity. An analyst of the past may have personal beliefs with the potential to bias their analysis and incline them towards certain conclusions. Worse, these beliefs could make them begin with assumptions about the past and so make them select only the evidence that supports this a priori idea. Historians strive to avoid both and examine the evidence on its merits, though polemicists often don't bother with this objective approach. All too often many atheists can be polemicists when dealing with the past, only crediting information or analysis that fits an argument against religion they are trying to make while downplaying, dismissing or ignoring evidence or analysis that does not fit their agenda. Again, this is bad history and rarely serves any function other than preaching to the converted.

So, for example, until the early twentieth century the history of science was popularly seen as a centuries-long conflict between forward thinking scientific minds trying to advance knowledge and human progress but constantly being persecuted and suppressed by retrograde religious forces determined to retard scientific progress. Again, in the mid-twentieth century historians of science reassessed this general idea and rejected what is now referred to as the "Conflict Thesis", presenting a far more complex, nuanced and well-founded analysis of the development of science that shows that while there were occasional conflicts, which were rarely as simple as "science versus religion", religion was usually neutral on the rational analysis of the physical world and often actively supportive of it. Overt conflicts, such as the Galileo Affair, were exceptions rather than the rule and, in that case as in many others, more complicated than simply “religion” repressing “science”.

Objectivity, Bias and Historical Fables

We atheists and freethinkers regularly deride believers for their irrational thinking, lack of critical analysis and tendency to cling to ideas out of faith even when confronted by contrary evidence. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to talk about being rational, and criticise others for not being so, than it is to practice what we preach. Everyone has their biases and “confirmation bias” - the tendency to favour information that confirms our prior beliefs - is an innate psychological propensity that is hard to counter even when we are aware of it. This means that atheists can, in many cases, be as bad as believers in accepting appealing ideas without checking their facts, holding to common misconceptions in the face of contrary evidence and liking neat, simple stories over messy, complex and more detailed alternatives that happen to be more solidly supported by the evidence.

The idea that the medieval Church taught the earth was flat, that Columbus bravely defied their primitive Biblical superstition and proved they were wrong by sailing to America is a great story. Unfortunately, it’s historical nonsense – a fable with zero basis in reality. It’s bad enough that I have had the experience of intelligent and educated atheists repeating this story as an example of the Church holding back progress without bothering to check if it’s true. What’s worse is that I have also experienced atheists who have been shown extensive, clear evidence that the medieval Church taught the earth was round and that the myth of medieval Flat Earth belief was invented by the novelist Washington Irving in 1828, and they have simply refused to believe that the myth could be wrong.

Neat historical fables such as the ones about Christians burning down the Great Library of Alexandria (they didn’t) or murdering Hypatia because of their hatred of her learning and science (ditto) are appealing parables. Which means some atheists fight tooth and nail to preserve them even when confronted with clear evidence that they are pseudo historical fairy tales. Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones who can be dogmatic about their myths.

One of the main reasons for studying history is to get a better understanding of why things today are as they are by grasping what has gone before. But it only works with a good grasp of how we can know about the past, the methods of analysis used and the relevant material our understanding should be based on. It also only works if we strive to put aside what we may like to be true along with any preconceptions (since they are often wrong) and look at the material objectively. Atheists who attempt to use history in their arguments who don’t do these things can not only end up getting things badly wrong, but can also wind up looking as stupid or even as dogmatic as fundamentalists. And that’s not a good look.

Tim O’Neill writes historical book reviews on the Armarium Magnum blog and is a regular contributor to online fora on ancient and medieval history, atheism and the history of religion. He is a subscribing member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia and a former state president of the Australian Skeptics.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Brain Death and Other Happy News

The belief of a soul or spirit that can exist independent of a brain is a romantic idea that I don’t often go out of my way to debate. After all, believing that the essence of one’s identity continues after death is an understandable comfort to those dealing with mortality. That said, I’ve been asked recently why exactly I don’t believe in disembodied consciousness and figure that here is the perfect place to record my thoughts.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t an atheist issue. The existence of a God doesn’t imply an afterlife nor does the absence of a deity imply that there can’t be a hereafter. The fact that the two beliefs are so often tied speaks to how religions have positioned themselves to appeal to desires in order to gain a following. By this I mean that a master who must be worshiped and a church that must be paid doesn’t fulfill many emotional wants, however, a master who can eternally reward worship and a church that serves as the proxy for heaven--that’s desirable to many. Still, the afterlife, like God, is an issue for skeptics. Neither can be proven or specifically understood and they both rely on supernatural assumptions. It’s impossible to say for certain that we don’t wake up somewhere else post-mortem, but below are my reasons for doubting.

There are many ways to show that my consciousness (or my mind/spirit/soul/self--depending on definitions) is directly tied to my physical brain. Drink too many beers and I become less inhibited, more friendly, and slower to process new information. Drink enough, and my consciousness goes on hiatus entirely--and booze is just the tip of the iceberg. When considering the full range of effects pharmacology has our brain, how can anyone deny that chemicals are a catalyst for how we think and behave? We observe higher levels of serotonin or dopamine when happy. Age wears down the brain as much as any other bodily organ--resulting in sluggish thinking, memory loss, and confusion--which in some cases are diagnosable as Alzheimer's or Dementia. There is a laundry list of contributing evidence that shows as goes the brain, so goes the mind. The reasonable conclusion is that when the brain goes completely, (dies) so does the self. I get it, it's a bummer, but desire does not dictate reality.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Links Shminks #15

The many possible outcomes of a Pascalian Wager render it useless.

The 10 weirdest right-wing Xian conspiracy theories

Vjack talks about Atheism+ and where it went wrong.

Richard Dawkins had a short interview on The Daily Show, and a longer interview with Jon Stewart on-line.

A great post for those wondering if a religion is harmful.

Rosa Rubicondior's take on the censorship tendencies of religion.

An atheist wonders if his rationalization to eat meat is religious in nature.

An atheist thinking about the kind of theist he could be.

And finally, a cartoon creationist needs representation.