Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Kentucky’s school prayer petition makes blatantly false claims

3185-Lack-of-School-Prayer-Opened-Door-to-AIDSThe American Family Association of Kentucky has put up a petition to put prayer back in Kentucky schools. They claim that the law is ok because Florida and Mississippi have passed similar laws, though I suspect it is just a matter of time before the laws a struck down for church state separation violations. The AFA doesn’t even try to disguise their intent, they say outright the goal of putting prayer in school is to convert students. In their own words:
Now, I suspect that even if Kentucky passes such a law it will, within a few years, end up on the docket for judicial review and the law will be shot down amidst cries from the AFA that the liberal elite are destroying this country. So while I am concerned that there is a trend of states passing laws which have already been deemed unconstitutional, what I’m really concerned about is the blatantly false scientific claims they make as part of the petition. Claims that apparently no one bats an eye at, perhaps because they fit a narrative that this petitions audience already wants to believe. The narrative being that American society is failing because it doesn’t trust in god. So let’s take a look at the scientific claims which the petition makes:
Prayer was in our schools for over 200 years before the anti-God forces took it out in 1962. After prayer was removed from our schools, teen pregnancy went up 500%, STD’s went up 226%, violent crime went up 500% and SAT scores went down for 18 years in a row, opening the door for the AIDS epidemic and the drug culture.
Of course the notion that before the supreme court ruled on school prayer in 1962 and 1963 school prayer was common in all 50 states and totally uncontroversial is simply historically inaccurate.  But lets look at the four main scientific claims made here.
First, they claim that teen pregnancy has climbed 500% since 1962. This one is easy because I actually wrote a post about this claim last year which you can read here. In this article I point to a set of statistics found here which show that far from a 500% increase, since 1962 the teen pregnancy rate has fallen by almost 100%, in 2008 and more recent figures show even further decline. This claim is not only poorly supported, it seems to be an outright fabrication. Of course if they have alternate figures I can’t judge them since they fail to provide references for their claims.
The next claim is that STD’s have gone up 226% since 1962. Like the first one I seem to be unable to find any reports with this claim. Further, the claim is more difficult to judge than the one about pregnancy because while pregnancy is binary (you either are or you aren’t) STD’s come in many different kinds, some of which are very dangerous and some of which are fairly harmless, particularly if treated quickly. Though, in part, it is the very fact that STD rates are difficult to judge that make this figure so suspect. For instance, the infection rates of specific STD’s rise and fall at different rates as well, sometimes one will go up while another will go down in the same year. So if the figures for a less harmful one went up while one that was more harmful went down by a similar amount is the STD problem unchanged or is it improved? Further, if the figures go up for a particular STD, depending on how the figures are gathered, this might only indicate that more people are seeking medical treatment, not that infection rates have increased. For these, and other, reasons generalized rates like the one given in this petition are practically useless. They tell us less than nothing.
So how did this number hold up to the figures I was able to gather? I did find a paper here through the CDC which gives rates of infections for various STD’s. The rates fro Chlamydia only went back to 1990 so I can’t judge that one entirely, the rates have climbed since 1990 with women suffering from the majority of the cases but at a rate of about 375 per 100,000 it isn’t like there is an epidemic or anything.
I was, however, able to get graphs stretching back to 1941 for both Gonorrhea and Syphilis. Gonorrhea infections seem to have been on the rise in the early 1960’s all the way until the mid 1970’s. It was at about 150 out of 100,000 in 62 and climbed sharply to almost 500 by 1975. However, that trend was reversed in the 1980’s and by 1995 the rate was down to around 100, lower than it was even in the 1950’s. Syphilis, meanwhile, was at it’s highest rate of nearly 600 out of 100,000 in 1945. This was probably due to soldiers returning from WWII. The modern figures barely register on the graph with numbers under 50.
image image
Of course there are other STD’s we could look at. I imagine the rate of increase for AIDS between 1962 and now is off the charts since it didn’t exist then, but in general without some rather startling figures coming from some other form of STD it is pretty clear that the claim of a 226% increase in STD’s came from the same place their claims about teen pregnancy came from.
The third claim was that crime has gone up 500% since 1962. I found numbers for this here. This one could actually have some teeth if you measure the the straight numbers of crime without regard to the increase in population we have seen since 1962. For instance the number of Robberies in 1962 was about 110,000, and in 2011 they were about 354,000. That is an increase of well over 300%. However, when you note that the population of the U.S. has increased by nearly 1.7 times that increase falls to only about 190%.
However these numbers are not consistent. The murder rate, for example was around 8500 in 1962 and are around 14,600 in 2011. That increase is actually consistent with the increase in population, leaving the per capita murder rate relatively unchanged since the 1960’s. In fact, Murder numbers actually peaked in the 90’s and have been falling for nearly 20 years now. In fact pretty much every crime rate has been falling since the mid 1990’s so the only way you could get anywhere near this 500% figure is by looking at 20 year old data.
The last claim made is that SAT scores fell 18 years in a row. Once again I was able to find actual figures for this quite easily. This one has a grain of truth in it since the average score in 1980 was 424 compared to the 473 that was the average in 1962. However a new scale was introduced in 1967 which may muck up the comparison. If you only look at the averages from the new scale from 67 onward there was a downward shift in the 60’s and 70’s, but that trend reversed in the mid 80’s and has been climbing. Interestingly, numbers in the math section have been rising more than numbers in reading. Further the downward trend could have been due to increased college attendance or the fact that test standards were changed several times which could have made the test more difficult.
Of course the biggest problem with this argument is that even if their numbers were correct, and I have shown that they are not, they have done nothing to show any causal relationships between these figures. They assume, for no reason whatsoever, that these figures changed because of a change in school prayer, when it should be obvious that things like teen pregnancy and STD’s are affected by thousands of different factors. Of course acknowledging that there might not be an easy fix for our problems is usually a hard thing to do. We want our fixes to come easy, and to the unskeptical it is comforting to think that if they can just get society to change one thing everything will fall into place and be great. Seldom is this tendency seen in more prevalence than with the religious right.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Prophecy is bad argument for god.

When I have debates with theists I often ask what evidence there is to convince us there is a god, if the conversation goes on long enough eventually they will bring up bible prophecy that predicts events before they happen as clear proof that a god exists. I happened to run into such a person just today

So why do I think this is a bad argument? First to be fair in my assessment we need to set up some ground rules about what would make a good prophecy, so we can determine if the bible meets these standards. I will also keep it simple so that no one can accuse me of creating unreasonable standards.

In my estimation prophecy would need to be able to do two things to prove, within reason, that it is actually foretelling the future.

First it ought to be specific. For instance, say  I told you my psychic abilities gave me the ability to predict the winning lottery number. However, when you asked for proof I produced a spreadsheet that listed every possible derivation of numbers that could possibly appear in said lottery and said the winning number is one of these. I would technically be right, but only in the sense that my prediction was so general that it could not possibly be wrong. Not only does this not demonstrate supernatural abilities, it not going to improve your chances of winning the lottery. So predictions that are too general are out because it is too easy to get things right without actually knowing anything about the future. We see examples of this in action all the time with psychics who “predict” banal things like earth quakes. They could fix this by giving us the exact time, and location of the earthquake, but they won’t because they don’t want to make a claim that is falsifiable.

Secondly the source of the predictions needs to be consistent. That is, it should be able to make many predictions all, or at least most, of which turn out correct. This is because of a little thing called statistical inevitability. That is to say even if the chance of something happening is very low, if you produce the circumstances in which the event can occur enough times eventually it becomes likely that it will have happened in at least one of those instances. To put it another way, if I make hundreds of thousands of predictions, even very specific ones, eventually one of them will turn out right even without actual prophetic powers. Further, given this, even if I make only one prediction that turns out to be right, it is still probably more likely that I got lucky than I’m actually a prophet. So we need multiple data points to build a case that something significant is going on.

So the key is to make detailed prophecies of future events that almost always turned out to be highly accurate. So before we delve into the bible to see if it holds up lets look at a non-biblical prophecy to see how these standards work. 

A quick Google search turned up a webpage that speaks favorably about Nostradamus’ predictions

Here is a quote from Nostradamus that his devotees regularly quote as being a prediction of nuclear weapons:

"Near the gates and within two cities
There will be scourges the like of which was never seen,
Famine within plague, people put out by steel,
Crying to the great immortal God for relief."

So is this claim exact? It mentions two cities but does not tell us the name of those cities, it does not tell us anything about the date that this might occur, it does not mention nuclear bombs, atoms, or even explosions for that matter. It is all very vague. One could argue that saying two cities is specific, but with all of the events out there in the world if he had said 3 cities or 10 people could have easily attached this to some other event. How does the website deal with the passage?

This one is hard to dispute... It's an accurate depiction of the nukes being used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Scourges the like of which was never seen,"  and people "crying to the great immortal God." Of course it's vague - and you could insert other events that have effected 2 populaces - but in our known history, the dropping of atomic weapons on Japan is a huge turning point in our history, warfare, and politics.

He claims it’s an accurate description of nuclear weapons being used at the end of WWII but his reasoning is completely ad hoc. There is no way you would look at this passage and know what was going to happen before it happened. He clearly just finds an event in history that looks vaguely like the description and then shoe horns it in to the passage. As far as the second rule, Nostradamus does make a lot of predictions, but unfortunately for him they are all about as clear as this one.

Now, lets move on to the Bible, I’m not going to look at the whole thing because that would be much longer post so we will suffice for now to look at a fairly famous examples of prophecy in the bible.

Isaiah 7:14 is one of the passages that is famous for supposedly predicting the birth of Jesus.

7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 7:15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.

It is, of course, important to note that there is reason to suspect that the use of the word virgin in verse 14 is incorrect. The Hebrew word translated here refers to a young woman but not necessarily to her sexual status. The confusion there was originally caused by a mistranslation in the Septuagint which was the source for the original KJV bible.

Next, the passage isn’t quite a vague as Nostradamus, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. No dates or times listed. It says a woman will conceive, but does not name her and a woman having a child is not particularly out of the ordinary, especially in a world sans reliable birth control.

Jesus was of course never called Immanuel in the gospels but most Christians say that was meant to be metaphorical since Immanuel means “god with us.” Still it stretches credulity, prophecy always seems to be filled with statements that people decide should be read metaphorically after the fact. If they were clear as I suggest then we wouldn’t have these issues to sort out. In addition, some of the details it does give are not only fairly useless, but also make no logical sense. It says he will eat butter and honey so he will that he may know to refuse evil. How exactly does eating any kind of food help one refuse evil? This is not only vague it doesn’t even make any sense.

Further, if you read the wider context of this section by going back to the beginning of the chapter, is not even attempting a prophecy of for Jesus. It is clearly speaking about a war with Syria.

7:1 And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.

Then the king hears that Syria is allies with Ephraim, so Isaiah goes to speak to Ahaz and to tell him to not be worried because they won’t win and Ephraim will be destroyed within five years. So God speaks to Ahaz and offers to give him a sign as proof that they will be protected in the coming war. This child's birth is offered as such a sign. So not only is the passage a weird and vague failure of a prophecy it never even attempted to be the prophecy Christians want it to be. This is not an isolated passage either, one can find the same kinds of flimsy “prophecy” littering the bible.

I want to go one step further than this though. For the sake of argument let us assume a reality where these passages did live up the standards I posed above. The prophecies were both incredibly detailed and consistently right. Christians present this best case scenario as definitive proof of a god, but, in fact, it is not. The only thing that this scenario actually proves is that the person who wrote it knew things about the future that he should not have been able to know given our current understanding of how the universe works.

Certainly god could be a possible explanation for this scenario, but then so could time travel or psychic abilities. Sure there is no evidence for those, but neither is there any evidence for god outside of the aforementioned prophecies. Of course the theist might point out at this point that if the person giving the prophecy claimed that god was the source of his revelation that would lend credence to the god hypothesis, but this is a fairly weak argument. He could be lying, he may believe god has given him the revelation, but be mistaken, or the actual source of the information could intentionally deceiving him. Admittedly these scenarios are unlikely, but then without some further evidence beyond the prophecy itself God is also an unlikely explanation. In this way, prophecy is a very weak argument for the existence of god.

Now that this has been explained I’m sure theists will stop using this as an argument now.  Right?…

Friday, July 12, 2013

Another article claiming the army is persecuting Christians.

An editorial posted yesterday on The Washington Times’ website claims that Christians are being discriminated against in the military. The author quotes information recently posted by Family Research Council.

A strange claim, since I have often heard from atheists I know who have served that Christianity has undue support there and have told me stories of discrimination they and others have faced for their lack of faith, not the other way around as FRC claims.

I know I run a relatively unknown blog in my little corner of the internet. (promote me if you like my stuff) Yet, despite this I strive to be critical in my writing. I try to research claims I make, reference article I have read and generally be as accurate as I can given the amount of time I have to research. All of this is precisely why it bothers me so much when I run across articles like this. The article is poorly researched (he clearly did not read anything but the FRC piece) tripe that should never have seen the light of day on a major news outlet, even as an editorial, yet is was published on The Washington Times.

He starts out with the claim “There are no atheists in foxholes” which anyone could find out is untrue if they did a simple Google search. The first link I ran across was a link to an article from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers the article entitled Atheists in Foxholes, in Cockpits, and on Ships talks specifically about the falsehood of this very claim. The author is not off to a good start, but lets look at the rest.

He says that the FRC’s article points out more than three dozen examples of “pressures to impose a secular, anti-religious culture on our nation’s military services;” So let’s look at a few of these claims. He brings up three in the article.

An Army master sergeant was punished for serving sandwiches from Chick-fil-A at his own promotion party. Because the owners of Chick-fil-A are outspoken in support of traditional marriage, the sergeant was “investigated, reprimanded, threatened with judicial action, and given a bad efficiency report.”

Hmm. well this seems suspicious. Did the military really reprimand a master sergeant for serving chicken sandwiches?  It turns out there is an article on The Washington Times site about this very situation that tells a slightly different story.

It seems that the Master Sargent has just been promoted and decided to throw a party for his promotion AND his support of DOMA. He was, in fact, serving Chick-fil-A specifically to let people know he supported DOMA. His invitation even stated “In honor of my promotion and in honor of the Defense of Marriage Act, I’m serving Chick-fil-A sandwiches at my promotion party.”

Now, ignoring the fact that serving crappy fast food at your promotion party makes you a crappy host there are two problems I see with this. One, people serving in the military are actually limited in there ability to speak on political issues, particularly partisan ones. A law that is in place to prevent military coups. In fact, the article I link to specifically mentions attending dinners and parties meant to support partisan political causes in their official capacity as an officer. So his decision to link the two things could not only have put him in hot water but potentially put any other service man who attended at the same risk. So it was poorly advised.

Secondly, as of September 2011 when DADT was repealed homosexuals are now able to openly serve in the military, so there is a reasonable chance that there were men and women serving under him who are gay. These people would probably then be expected to attend and party celebrating a law which is expressly designed to limit their civil rights, while also feeling that many of the other people attending supported it as well. Therefore, his actions could reasonably deemed to cause problems with unit cohesion. These are not minor problem, so it is not surprising that he was reprimanded and giving a bad efficiency report.

Click for full sizeA painting depicting a policeman with a Scripture citation and the image of a cross was removed from the dining hall of an Air Force base in Idaho an hour after a single enlisted man complained.

When I actually looked this one up is was far worse than I had imagined. The picture, posted on the right (click photo for full size), features a military officer standing in front of another figure who looks very much like a crusader. The fact that it features a bible passage that speaks about peacemakers does little to offset the creepy undertones in this picture so it is not surprising at all that someone complained. I likely would have complained about this even when I was a Christian. The crusades are a period of history that most Christians should rightly want to distance themselves from. I’m actually not sure what they were thinking when they put it up in the first place.

An Air Force officer was told to he couldn’t keep a Bible in his desk. Fox News reported that his superiors were concerned that it would “appear that he was condoning a particular religion.” Airmen could express their beliefs only as long as it didn’t “make others uncomfortable.”

This one might be the only one I might slightly agree with, it really depends on context. If the officer did nothing but have a bible on his desk then this may have gone a bit overboard. However, in many cases once you know the whole story it turns out there was a lot more going on. This man was an officer, meaning men were under his command and it is quite possible he was subtlety or even overtly using his position of authority to evangelize to those he commanded. It is a reasonable assumption given the Christian belief in a command to convert unbelievers. Understand, I’m not actually bothered by evangelism per se. I support free exchanges of ideas, you are free to convince me god exists as I am free to convince you he probably doesn’t. However, for that to happen everyone in the exchange needs to be on equal social footing. You don’t have that when the person trying to convert you is your boss. I even found an article speaking about this where U.S. Congressmen (Louie Gohmert R-TX) took issue saying:

Under President Obama’s military you are no longer allowed to share your faith…Do you follow President Obama or do you follow God and the teachings of Jesus?

If even a congressmen can’t understand the need to be circumspect about how you promote your religious beliefs to subornments then it may well be reasonable for the DOD to take a hardline against any semblance of religious proselytizing.

Of course if you go to the source material from FRC you find even more bizarre complaints. They don’t explain why but they apparently strongly object to a DOD statement from May which they quote.

The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution.... Service members can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization).

I’m left scratching my head as to how they take the notion that they are not allowed to “force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others” as discrimination against them. If the FRC really thinks that asking that they not be intrusive and rude in their attempts to convert people is a violation of their civil rights that says more about them than they realize and it isn’t good.

The article gets even more ridiculous from there. It talks about O’Hair removing prayers from school, even though that was not at all what happened. Teacher led prayers were removed, as they should be for the exact same reasons an army commander shouldn’t be forcing religion on people under their command. Of course the author thinks he knows that this is not what the founders of the country wanted, even though he demonstrably does not, and that really shouldn’t be our standard for governance anyway.

The author ends trying to defend an amendment to the NDAA that seems designed to restore the special privilege to force everyone else to put up with invasive evangelism that Christians apparently think they should have in the armed forces. The bill changes a few words in the NDAA which basically attempts to allow any kinds of religious actions or speech as long as it does not “actually harm” anyone. 

I think this correctly sums up the problem with the bill.

The Administration strongly objects to section 530, which would require the Armed Forces to accommodate, except in cases of military necessity, "actions and speech" reflecting the "conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the member." By limiting the discretion of commanders to address potentially problematic speech and actions within their units, this provision would have a significant adverse effect on good order, discipline, morale, and mission accomplishment.

There are quite a few atheists in foxholes already, we aren’t lonely, those that serve just demand the same respect for serving in the military that everyone else gets, and articles like this being posted on a major new site are an offense to every single atheist who has served and even given their lives in defense of this country. If The Washington Times had any sense they would pull this article and issue a public apology for allowing such offensive and demonstrably inaccurate claims too grace their pages. I won’t hold my breath though.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is concerned about the lack of philosophical nuance he sees in the new atheists.

I ran across the following article today on the spectator.

Chief Rabbi: atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians

tumblr_lv8rncRbhu1r6aacmo1_500Sacks starts his article with a quote, “On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial,” which he says reminds him of new atheists. After reading his article I am tempted to throw his own quote back at him.

Lets go through his main points:

Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood, the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards and we would be left with a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another.

He starts with this volley. The interesting thing is that I don’t know any atheists who actually believe that all religion will go away if we convince people Genesis is not literally true. Most of us are aware that there are varieties of religion which do not hold to fundamentalist beliefs. On the other hand, he speaks almost as if he believes that the people who actually believe in creationism are a vanishingly small minority which they are most certainly not. Criticism of creationism and defense of evolutionary theory are just that and no more. I also don’t know any atheists who think that getting rid of religion would fix all of the worlds problems, or that there would no longer be any disagreements. This sort of strawman is common but lets me know that Sacks doesn’t seem to know much about atheists.  He continues:

Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists, the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche? Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?

I hear this a lot from theologians that fancy themselves as more “sophisticated” than fundamentalists. I again, point out that he seems to not know much about atheists. One common thread I notice is many people who talk about “new atheism” seem to only be familiar with a few really famous writers like Dawkins. Yet in this case I am still left scratching my head, Dennett is quite well known and a professor of philosophy, yet he never addresses Dennett anywhere in his article. He does address Dawkins later on, but Dawkins is a biologist. If he wants to talk about new atheism’s lack of philosophical understanding wouldn’t it be better to deal with arguments from actual philosophers?

I personally think that atheism is making a valiant effort to address the problem of creating social bonds without religion, though we probably aren't as good as religions which have had centuries to perfect them. Yet, It is important to note that few atheists would have a problem with religion if it most people viewed it as nothing more than rituals and narratives. It is the fact that many people believe they are literally true that bothers us. Next he says:

Should we not simply accept that just as there are some people who are tone deaf and others who have no sense of humour, so there are some who simply do not understand what is going on in the Book of Psalms, who lack a sense of transcendence or the miracle of being, who fail to understand what it might be to see human life as a drama of love and forgiveness or be moved to pray in penitence or thanksgiving? Some people get religion; others don’t. Why not leave it at that?

My first thought on reading this was who says atheists don’t appreciate and enjoy life. Just because most of use wouldn’t use religious language to describe this doesn’t mean we are missing out on something. I feel like one of the problems that atheists and liberal theologians like Sacks have in communicating with one another is that they are so used to communicating these kinds of feelings in the language of religion they come to the unfortunate conclusion that people who do not use such language are somehow missing something important about the human experience.

Fair enough, perhaps. But not, I submit, for readers of The Spectator, because religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his -latter-day successors fail to grasp at all.

Ah, now we get to his real concern, he thinks atheism will result in the downfall of western civilization. The difference between his reasoning and that of the fundamentalist is that, while fundamentalists believe atheists will be the ones to destroy civilization, Sacks believes that it will happen because atheists will simply have no intellectual defense against all of the evil out there.

I take some issue with the notion that western civilization owes it’s entire existence to Christianity. We owe at least as much, if not more, to Greek philosophy. He then goes into a conversation about Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more ‘Thou shalt not’; instead people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. ‘An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be “unjust” as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.’ Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust.

Now, I don’t consider myself an expert on Nietzsche, but I think he misunderstands him here. It is true that he advocated we get rid of Christian morality, but I think to suggest that Nietzsche’s concept of “will to power.” implied a moral vacuum where the strong controlled or killed the weak is a major misunderstanding of his philosophy.

I also wonder, if this is Sacks understanding of Nietzsche, why he claims to respect him as the greatest of all atheists.  I have a theory though, religious people like the argument that morality cannot exist without god, It makes them feel good about their religious beliefs. So when they read anything from atheists that seem to acknowledge this opinion in any form they latch onto it. They believe that such atheists are better because at least they acknowledge that all the good morality comes from religion. Then they accuse all of those uppity atheists who have the gall to claim that morality is not the sole domain of religion, and possibly not the domain of religion at all, of lacking philosophical nuance in their arguments. If they had a really nuanced view of philosophy, they argue, they would admit that morality can only be explained by religion.

The history of Europe since the 18th century has been the story of successive attempts to find alternatives to God as an object of worship, among them the nation state, race and the Communist Manifesto. After this cost humanity two world wars, a Cold War and a hundred million lives, we have turned to more pacific forms of idolatry, among them the market, the liberal democratic state and the consumer society, all of which are ways of saying that there is no morality beyond personal choice so long as you do no harm to others.

Another piece of language I find to be kind of frustrating from theists is their attempt treat every new idea as some kind of replacement for god. Further exactly what is so bad with a morality that says it’s ok to do what you want as long as you do no harm to others? If everyone lived by such a mantra I imagine things would be pretty good.

He then descends into several paragraphs that I won’t bother to quote lamenting the decline of western civilization, he blames “materialism, individualism and moral relativism” but offers no real reason to actually blame these things. At least one thing he points out, the lack of communal support, is a modern cultural trend which probably has more to do with peoples tendency to move long distances, something which was much more rare prior to the 20th century.  Mostly however, I just think he engages in a bit of confirmation bias, he looks at statistics that he thinks have trended in a direction that points to societal decline but ignores piles of statistics that could just as easily be used to suggest an opposite trend.

It’s the end of the article that I probably take the most issue with though:

In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the 21st century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism…The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power. Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies. That does not mean that they need be religious. It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, ‘There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.

He views liberal religion as the last bastion of hope in defense against the fundamentalists of the world. I think this argument is rather bizarre considering their actual track record and responding to fundamentalists. Take a look at any country currently overrun with fundamentalists pushing their religious agenda and ask yourself if it is the moderate or liberal religious people you see standing up to them or is it the atheists?

Take the U.S., the religious right took over the republican party in the early 1980’s and more liberal denominations did nothing. It was a mix of atheist and secular groups that started stemming that tide in in the last ten to fifteen years. In the meantime liberal/moderate religious groups have spent most of their time telling atheists to be quiet , or complaining that we are just as bad as the fundamentalists. Then take Muslim theocracies like Iran, is it the moderate Muslims taking the government to task for allowing the fundamentalists to run everything or is it the atheists, sometimes in fear of their lives, doing that? As far as there being no society to maintain morality without religion, that isn’t particularly surprising given that almost all societies in history have been explicitly religious. The notion of church state separation is rather new, after all. Further, most of those societies actually allowed or even encouraged some really horrible behavior despite their religion. Personally I am aiming higher than that. It may, in fact, be more difficult to build a successful society without a religion to prop up our communities and social networks but if we are willing to put in the work we might just make something better.

Atheist monument is “awkward”

w3xuVBQColumnist tom hoopes from the catholic vote website has written a rather trite top 10 list criticizing the monument that the American Atheists put up recently.

For those unfamiliar with the back story you can read more about it here and here.

Friendly atheist also wrote a response to this article. Let’s take a look at this top 10 list.

1. A quote on it says: “An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church.” Which is awkward, because we really haven’t seen all those hospitals the atheists were going to build …

When atheists groups have as much money as the catholic church we could see if this trend continues. In fact we already have evidence that this is not a very reasonable statement. Bill Gates is an atheist and gives away millions of dollars a year providing for medical treatment. Just look at his program to provide vaccines to low income areas in the world.

2. The hospital quote is also awkward because it clearly should have said: “An atheist believes that monuments to atheism should be built in all 50 states instead of a hospital.”

First off, if the atheist groups had their preference religious groups would not be putting monuments on state property. This monument was put up as a response to a 10 commandments monument put up in front of the same building that cost nearly four times as much as the atheist monument. This was put up because atheists believe that the state should not give preferential treatment to one on religious belief. In order to keep the 10 commandments display up the government had to allow displays from other groups to be put up. They probably thought this would placate everyone and get them to go away, we called their bluff.

3. A quote on the monument says atheists “Want war eliminated.” Which is awkward because warriors like Stalin and Lenin and Mao and Hoxha and Ceaușescu – were all atheists.

Please, this is no more awkward than a Christian saying they are against torture even knowing that Cardinal Ximénes de Cisneros, the man in charge of the Spanish inquisition, was a Christian. The notion that I, or anyone employed by American Atheists, are personally responsible for something Stalin did just because we hold the same opinion about God is just laughable.

4. The monument also mocks the punishments threatened in the Old Testament. Awkward: Far worse brutality was actually committed by the atheist warriors listed above – in our lifetime.

This complaint I found quite interesting, he says that the brutality of atheists like Stalin was worse than God’s brutality. Lets ignore the question of who is the more brutal, and instead notice that he seems to be acknowledging that God’s behavior is in fact brutal, just less so than Stalin. It’s not a problem for me that Stalin was a brutal dictator. I don’t worship Stalin, never have, never will. So the most pertinent question is why he worships someone who he will readily acknowledge has committed brutal acts.

5. The “We want war eliminated” quote is also awkward because all of the other quotes on the monument are from Founding Fathers known for starting a war with England.

Just because a group wants war eliminated doesn't mean they are pacifists who would refuse to fight even if there were no other options. One can be opposed to violence while still acknowledging that it may be needed now and again when presented with people who are willing to use violence to get what they want. This is not awkward at all.

6. It’s awkward that at the dedication, a preacher used the monument to preach Christ, and the free thinkers got mad at his free thinking.

What is awkward is suggesting that Eric Hovind, a man who claims the earth is 6,000 years old, qualifies as a free thinker. To claim that the term “free thinker” applies to anyone who has a thought about anything, no matter how misinformed or inane, would make the term meaningless. Besides people were less angry and more annoyed. Atheists don’t show up in peoples churches and force their way in front of the pulpit to shout at people. We don’t do that because it would make us look like assholes.

7. It’s awkward that the monument has what looks like a biohazard symbol on it.

Uh… here is what the two symbols look like.


Do these really look similar? I feel like this was just a stupid way to fill out his list, since “top 9 awkward facts” wouldn’t have the same ring to it.

8. But the symbol actually shows an atom. J.J. Thomson won the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the electron. He was a churchgoer who read the Bible every night. Which is awkward for atheists.

OK, given that he actually knew it was the symbol for an atom, I’m even more certain that number 7 was just a lazy attempt at filler. How exactly is this suppose to be awkward anyway? I suppose if most atheists took the position that no religious person has ever done anything of merit in the history of the world it would be awkward, but I’ve never met an atheist with that opinion.

Atheists acknowledge Isaac Newton for his contributions to science without any awkwardness. Yet it was not Thomson’s or Newton’s religion that led them to these discoveries. In fact it is worth noting that despite Newton’s major contributions most of his work was complete nonsense due to his fascination with alchemy and theology. It’s possible that Newton could have accomplished much more if he hadn’t spent the majority of his carrier writing theological treatises. There is a good reason scientists still use the laws of motion but don’t pay any attention to Newton’s work in alchemy.

9. A quote on the monument says “An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.” Awkward: atheists Jack Kevorkian (Dr. Death) and Derek Humphry (founder of the Hemlock Society) would disagree

Kevorkian supports the right of people who are dying of degenerative illnesses to choose to end their life early rather than suffer through months of agonizing pain. There is nothing awkward about wanting people to be able to live a long and happy life, while also supporting Kevorkian’s aim in this area.

10. A New Jersey-based group went to Florida to build an atheist monument. That sounds kind of … missionary and proselytizing. Which is awkward for people who are against that kind of thing …

I’m not sure that taking a trip to Florida counts as proselytizing. In any case I don’t think most atheists are against proselytizing in the sense of people on equal social footing debating ideas. We are against teachers proselytizing to their students in part because that is not a position of equal social footing, the teacher is using their authority to force people to listen and to stifle disagreement. However, I’m not opposed to the free exchange of ideas. Indeed it is that very free exchange that is causing religion to loose ground in many debates, like this one for instance.

I think most atheists have pointed out that we would prefer that no religious monuments be placed in front of courthouses or city hall or any other state owned building. If the 10 commandments display had been placed in front of a church or some other privately owned building Christians wouldn’t have heard a peep from us and we certainly wouldn’t have put up our own monument, so in a way they only have themselves to blame.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Switched to Disqus for comments

I’ve been working on a few technical changes on my blog recently to make things more accessible and user friendly.  One thing in particular that has always bugged me is the comments system on blogger. It’s functional but pretty light on features.

Blogger introduced a way to switch comments over to a G+ system a while back and it was a bit slicker but still lacked a lot of features, it also had the annoying habit of destroying comments if I had to revert a post to draft for some reason. So I’ve been wanting to replace it for a while, I noticed a lot of people using Disqus so I finally logged into my account there to see how easy it would be to integrate my blog with it. Turns out it was super easy and took like 10 minutes, makes me feel silly for not doing it earlier.

Anyway, for anyone unfamiliar with Disqus you have to sign up for an account to post since I don’t have anonymous posting turned on. You can sign up here,