Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Atheist Chaplains, or Another Case of Christians Not Being the Ones Discriminated Against

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI was having a conversation with someone the other day, and the topic turned to the types of things I discuss on this blog. I made a comment along the lines of, 'It's not as if Christians are a persecuted minority in this country', and the other person responded that 'No, they're a persecuted majority'. From my interactions, it seems that this is a relatively common perception. As an example, here's an article from Townhall Magazine, Persecution of Christians ... in America. Granted, there are examples of Christians being mistreated, but these mainly seem to be isolated cases. For another set of examples, look to the ACLU's ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression. Those are mostly local school boards, city governments, or bureaucrats misunderstanding the law.

For an example of a group being discriminated against by not just local government, but the United States House of Representatives, consider the recent case of the ban on atheist chaplains in the military.

Currently, there are around 2800 chaplains in the military. These chaplains are all specifically for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews (and maybe a few more religions, I'm not sure). However, there are no specifically secular chaplains, even though around 20% of those in the military have no particular religious affiliation, and around 1% are specifically atheist/agnostic. So, some atheist organizations were pushing to get a few secular chaplains to support the non-religious in the military. One congressional member tried to create the post in an amendment to the defense appropriations bill, but it was voted down. Not content with merely voting it down, the opponents came back with a separate amendment requiring chaplains to be associated with a specific religious institution - an attempt to effectively ban atheist and secular chaplains. And that amendment had no trouble passing - 253 to 173 (with only 2 Republicans voting against the amendment).

The guy who sponsored the amendment called atheist chaplains an oxymoron, insisting that chaplains are there to perform religious duties. But, in practice, the religious aspects of their post only constitute a small portion of it. As one of the commenters in the link below put it:

Military Chaplains do a lot more than hold church services and prayer meetings. They counsel guys that are going through a lot of hard stuff. Anyone who has served in the military knows this. If a soldier isn't a Christian, he may not feel comfortable talking to a Christian Chaplain about his issues, and there are a lot of guys out there committing suicide without having seen a Chaplain. Whatever we can do to prevent these needless deaths, even if you guys think it's "stupid" or an "oxymoron" is fine by me.

And I know some people might say those soldiers have the options of counselors and psychologists, but there's still a big stigma with those. More importantly, it goes down in the soldier's record if they see a psychologist, whereas a visit to a chaplain is off the record, making it more likely for a soldier to talk with them.

Don't get me wrong. Atheists don't have it terribly bad in the U.S. For one, it's not outwardly apparent, so even living in one of the reddest areas in a very red state, I've never felt the type of personal harassment that a victim of 'stop and frisk' would experience. But I'm also careful not to be very vocal about my atheism in the wrong crowds. Years ago when my daughter was younger, she made the mistake of simply telling another kid at daycamp that she didn't think you needed to believe in God to be a good person, and she ended up being teased by a bunch of other kids for the rest of the day. My main point is that I'm tired of the false narrative of Christians being the ones persecuted in this country.


More Info:

Other than the headline and opening paragraph, this is a pretty even handed article:

This issue has been covered extensively in verse by the Digital Cuttlefish, going back to before the above mentioned law was even proposed. Go check out some of his posts for more info:

Friday, August 16, 2013

Follow Up, Part II: Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution

Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenAs I wrote in my last entry, Follow Up: Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution, a little less than two months ago, I left a couple comments on the blog, Across the Fruited Plain, in the entries, Are Dinosaurs Alive Today As Birds?: Refuting Archaeopteryx as "Evidence" for Evolution and Refuting Fossil "Evidence" for Evolution: The Data is NOT in the Strata. It took a little while for the owner of the blog to approve my comments, but he finally did, and we got into a little back and forth. As I wrote in my previous entry, I was worried that the conversation would degrade into one on the nature of knowledge, not his original topic of evolution. And while I even wrote, "If he goes back into all the post-modern mumbo jumbo, I don't think I'll have the stomach to keep the conversation going," he managed to suck me into the conversation. It wasn't very productive - neither of us did any convincing of the other. However, it is rather enlightening into the mindset of a creationist. So, rather than waste more time in a pointless discussion, I left one final comment with the following conclusion.

Anyway, I'm done discussing epistemology. If you want to leave one more response to get in the last word, you're welcome to it. But I don't see this as a fruitful discussion. I'll keep on making arguments of the sort, 'In nearly all cases, absolute certainty is not possible, but we can still still have a very high degree of confidence in various claims, and the pragmatic approach to life is to not worry about the most outlandish, unlikely claims. We can always be mistaken, and your claim to absolute knowledge through Yahweh is just one example of people being mistaken in their beliefs.' And you'll keep making arguments of the sort, 'Aha! You admit you don't have absolute certainty, therefore you can't know anything. Whereas I believe in God, and can therefore have absolute certainty.' It'll just be longer, use more examples, longer words, and maybe even a bit more Latin, but the conversation won't go anywhere. It's fruitless.

If you do want to continue a conversation, I'd be happy to discuss the original topic of this blog post - birds, dinosaurs, and evolution. Even if you think I lack the epistemological basis to 'know' things, you believe that you don't have that handicap. So, unless you're going to imply that I really am living in the Matrix and this world isn't real, you at least should accept that the real world exists, and that the fossil and other evidence I'm trying to show you exists. So, you should be able to comment on your interpretations of that evidence. Otherwise, it seems like you're trying to evade the conversation.

And, just as a reminder, the questions I posted on your other entry, Refuting Fossil "Evidence" for Evolution: The Data is NOT in the Strata, still stand. You made several claims about evolutionary biology, geology, paleontology, etc. So, ignoring my supposed inability to 'know' things, what is your interpretation of the objections I posted? Do you have any evidence-based arguments against what I wrote, or are you just going to go back to arguing the nature of evidence and imply that my worldview doesn't allow me to know anything, thereby avoiding my questions?

If the conversation does progress to something productive, I'll probably make note of it here.


As an aside, I'm going to miss my Friday Bible Blogging entry this week. I've been a bit sick all week, and I just lacked the energy and conviction to read through another ten chapters of the Bible. It's already a bit of a chore even when I've feeling completely healthy. This conversation on the other blog, while a bit exasperating, was easy enough to keep up with without much thought or spending too much time on it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Follow Up: Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution

Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenA little less than two months ago, I left a couple comments on the blog, Across the Fruited Plain, in the entries, Are Dinosaurs Alive Today As Birds?: Refuting Archaeopteryx as "Evidence" for Evolution and Refuting Fossil "Evidence" for Evolution: The Data is NOT in the Strata. After about a week with my comments being held up in moderation, I decided to post them on this site in the entry, Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution. As I wrote in that entry, "Despite it not being a particularly active blog, I caught a case of SIWOTI syndrome and couldn't resist commenting."

Well, the writer of the blog has finally approved my comments and left a couple responses of his own. Unfortunately, so far, the discussion hasn't been particularly productive. In my first comment to his entry on fossil evidence for evolution, I was trying to correct his misrepresentations and misunderstandings of the science. Here's his initial response, in full.

Hello Jeff!

Thank you for your message.
You have made many knowledge claims, but since we do not know each other and I don't know what your epistemological groundings are, my question is, can you be wrong about everything you claim to know?

If you follow this blog at all, you can probably guess at my answer. I started off by saying that "Of course I could be wrong," and then gave a brief explanation of the sort I've made numerous times on this blog - that absolute certainty is impossible, but we can have varying levels of confidence in different ideas (for an example, see my essay, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge, or the related, but not quite as relevant, Confidence in Historical Knowledge)

His followup began in a very unpromising manner, "Therefore, if you could be wrong about everything you claim to know, then it follows that you do not know anything." It then went on from there with different variations on the theme that I've somehow admitted that knowledge is impossible because certainty is impossible.

My next reply wasn't as polite as perhaps it could have been (I lead off by asking, "Are you being obtuse on purpose?"), but it was mostly constructive and civil. I basically said that I wasn't going to get drawn into a discussion on epistemology when his own post was originally about evidence for evolution, and then reiterated my original points.


He also responded briefly to my comment on the bird entry, with a portion of his response wondering "how two creatures, who could not be more biologically different, are directly linked spontaneously through Macro Evolution". I responded with a comment listing the common features of dinosaurs and birds, but I now notice that that comment of mine is held up in moderation. Hopefully he'll approve it relatively soon.


I'll see how the conversation goes. I'm hoping he'll stay on topic with his original posts and discuss evidence for evolution. If he goes back into all the post-modern mumbo jumbo, I don't think I'll have the stomach to keep the conversation going.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling

Global WarmingSomeone recently asked me to fact check an e-mail for them, so I've decided to post that response here. The e-mail was supposedly quoting Ian Plimer, a geologist and professor at the University of Melbourne, and a noted climate change denialist. For anyone interested, I've posted that e-mail in its entirety below the fold.

The lead-in to the body of the article was, "Where Does the Carbon Dioxide Really Come From?" After a bit of ranting about Priuses, CFL bulbs, and the like, it got to its main point - that volcanoes supposedly spew out far more carbon dioxide than any human contributions. It even made the claim:

...when the volcano Mt Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, it spewed out more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire human race had emitted in all its years on earth.

Just a bit later, the e-mail claimed that the Earth has been cooling for the last century:

It's because the planet has COOLED by 0.7 degrees in the past century and these global warming bull artists got caught with their pants down.

So, in response to the person who asked me to fact check this e-mail, I responded in three parts, as detailed below.


Correct Attribution/Credentials?

On the first level of fact-checking, I didn't find the actual source of this quote from Plimer. All I could find were reprints of this e-mail. So, I'm not sure if he actually wrote it (and given the tone, I would hope not), but it does appear consistent with claims of his I've found elsewhere. As far as his background, that's simply copied-and-pasted from Wikipedia, so it's probably correct.


Volcanic Emissions vs. Human Emissions:

Plimer is way off base here. I found many, many different sites dealing with this. Here are two of the better ones:

That first link contains these two tables, so that you can compare annual volcanic CO2 emissions to human emissions. It also contained the emissions for a couple notable eruptions, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Pinatubo. Annual human caused CO2 emissions are on the order of 134 times higher than total annual volcanic emissions (which includes submarine volcanos), and about 700 times higher than what was released by the one-time event of Mt. Pinatubo erupting.

Yearly CO2 emitters Billion metric tons per year (Gt/y)
Global volcanic emissions (highest preferred estimate) 0.26
Anthropogenic CO2 in 2010 (projected) 35
Light-duty vehicles (cars/trucks) 3
Approximately 24 1000-megawatt coal-fired power stations * 0.22
Argentina 0.2
Pakistan 0.18
Saudi Arabia 0.44
 
CO2 emission events  
Mount St. Helens, 18 May 1980 0.01 Gt
Mount Pinatubo, 15 June 1991 0.05 Gt
Number of Pinatubo-equivalent eruptions equal to annual anthropogenic CO2 700
Number of Mount St. Helens-equivalent eruptions equal to annual anthropogenic CO2 3500


Global Cooling?

I've seen similar claims of global cooling a few times before, but usually on shorter time scales. It almost always comes down to cherry-picking data. Here's an article dealing with a similar claim made by David Rose last year, and another article dealing with longer term trends.

Below is a good graph from the first article. It clearly shows a long term warming trend over the past several decades. But it's not a perfectly smooth line, and there are outliers both above and below the general trend. So, if you cherry-pick, as they show in the animation, and choose an appropriate (or rather, inappropriate) time period, you can say there's been cooling over that short term period, and then naively extrapolate that short term cooling to saying that it's a long term cooling trend. But when you look at the larger data set over several decades, it's clear which way the trend is going.

Global Warming Trends

The second article dealt with longer term trends, addressing the e-mail's specific claim of cooling over the last century. Below is a graph from that article, showing the temperature anomaly for the past 11,000 years. I clearly shows that the rate of change right now is much higher than it's been than at any other point in that period, and a clear warming trend for the past century.

Marcott Graph

So, this e-mail contained nothing but the bogus claims I've come to expect from the climate change denialists. I really don't understand this mindset. Problems don't disappear just because you ignore them. Burying your head in the sand won't make global warming go away. We've already had to face some consequences of a changing climate, and rather quickly, we're going to have to start dealing with the more profound effects. Why not own up to it and start working on solutions now?

Continue reading "Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling" »

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God

The Atheist's Worst NightmareIt's been a couple years since I wrote anything about Ray Comfort, but he's at it again (see the end of this entry for a list of articles I've written about Comfort - a CD of his was even the impetus that made me start this blog). He has a new movie out titled Evolution vs. God. To quote the synopsis from the order page:

Millions believe that Darwinian evolution is a scientific fact. This DVD shows it's unscientific, by interviewing evolutionary scientists from UCLA and UCS, as well as biology majors.

The movie is currently only available for a $20 download, but will be available for free on YouTube come August 7th. Needless to say, I can wait three weeks to avoid giving Comfort any money, at which point I may watch the whole thing and write a review. But in the meantime, I can say that I don't have high hopes. One of my more popular blog entries is Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution. I wrote it a few years ago when Comfort released a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species where he (Comfort) had written his own introduction. The release of that book created a bit of a controversy (similar to this movie), and Comfort ended up in a written debate with Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. In that debate, Comfort revealed a staggering ignorance of evolution. But it wasn't the first time. That CD I alluded to above was just as bad. And in the bits and pieces I've seen from Comfort since, it doesn't appear that he's really learned anything new. So, my suspicion is that Comfort is still wildly ignorant of evolution, and that this new movie will simply be full if misinformation.

Another relevant previous entry of mine is Ray Comfort: Quote Miner Extraordinaire. 'Quote mining' is the process of using a direct quote, but taking it out of context to present something contrary to what the person being quoted intended. A rather well known example of this (which I discussed in that entry), is people quoting Darwin from Origin of Species writing, "To suppose that the eye ... could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree," while ignoring the remainder of the chapter where Darwin detailed all the evidence backing up how the eye could have evolved. It was merely a rhetorical method of Darwin's. And Comfort is well-known for his quote-mining, so I'm suspicious that he would do the same thing here through selective editing of interviews (an entry by PZ Myers on Pharyngula suggests that this is exactly what happened).

As part of the press coverage over this movie, there was an article on The Blaze (the Glen Beck site), Evolution vs. God: Famed Evangelist Says His New Film Exposes 'Embarrassingly Stupid' Ideas Behind Darwinian Theory (Get a Sneak Peek). The article wasn't particularly in depth on what was in the movie, but it did have a few quotes from Comfort. Here's one that caught my eye.

"I've listened to him [Richard Dawkins] say things to thousands of university students that are just not true," Comfort said. "Many times over the years I've been accused by atheists of not understanding evolution. I've read every page of the world's most boring book, 'The Origin of Species.' "

Seriously, "the world's most boring book"? That seems like a petty, childish insult, and not even an accurate one, at that. I've read The Origin of Species (see my review), and while Victorian prose may be a little difficult for modern readers, I thought the book was very interesting. Besides, it's no longer the best introduction to evolution. Darwin didn't even know of Mendel's experiments with pea plants, let alone our modern understand of genetics and DNA. And many, many fossils have been discovered since then (interestingly, Darwin barely discussed fossils in The Origin of Species). Comfort would be well served by looking to a modern introduction to evolution, like Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, or Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.

Here's another passage from the article that caught my eye.

Comfort noted that even the most intelligent scientist on the face of the earth "can't make a grain of sand from anything," nor can he or she create animals that are able to reproduce. At the heart of the matter is his argument that the creation surrounding us couldn't have come from an explosion of nothing. This idea of spontaneous creation -- one that is touted by many Darwinian theorists -- he called "embarrassingly stupid" (he also gave the same label to atheism).

It's almost amazing how many bad arguments can be crammed into so short a space. First of all, evolution has nothing to do with the creation of the universe. Evolution is only about what happens once you have self-replicating chemistry. Nobody asks meteorologists where the atmosphere came from. Why do evolutionary biologists need to explain where atoms came from? And it always amazes me that creationists can scoff at our ignorance of where the universe came from, but then ignore the question of where God came from. The question of why there's something rather than nothing bothered me just as much when I was a Christian as it does now that I'm an atheist.

And finally, there's the personal insult, calling atheism "embarrassingly stupid". Now, I'm very confident in my atheism, but I recognize there's some small chance I may be wrong. But even if I did turn out to be wrong, I've given religion a lot of thought, and don't consider anything about my atheism to be "embarrassingly stupid". And of course, given the overwhelming evidence for evolution, there's nothing embarrassing about that subject, either.

Finally, I couldn't help but look at the comments to the Blaze article. Man, they're worse than YouTube comments. There were two particularly bad ones I noticed before I just had to quit looking.

Leopold Jun. 28, 2013 at 5:51pm

Perhaps over time the peni$ became long enough to reach into the woman's vag!na to mingle with her eggs.

Only evolution knows how the eggs came to be. All from one original cell.

And when or why did evolution stop? I haven't heard of anything that crawled out of water to become something, lately.

Well, There you have it, evolution: The survival of the fittest.

I am sure one day evolution will explain all this. After all the fact that we exist is proof of that it happened.

Why oh why are we Christians so stubborn and don't think that all this is perfectly reasonable.

I thank my heavenly Father that he gave me common sense to see the ridiculousness of evolution.

It is absolutely stunning that atheists, especially those who claim to be so educated, believe this nonsense. That is at least what they "claim" to believe.

If more people would actually know what they have to believe in order to believe in evolution they will very quickly come to the realization that evolution is absolute nonsense.

And people like Dawkins and all the rest of them actually hate God. That is their true motivation for misleading people.

But ignorance should not be an excuse. Especially ignorance out of laziness in studying what ones own believes are.

That first line about penises and vaginas has to do with a weird creationist belief that males and females must evolve independently (I'm not kidding). Then there's more misunderstanding of evolution, and the insistence that atheists aren't actually atheists, but really just hate God. But the part that made this worth quoting was the last paragraph. After spouting so many ignorant comments on evolution, this commenter had the chutzpah to write that "ignorance should not be an excuse". Why do people feel so confident to comment on something they know so little about?

This comment caught my eye, too.

jblaze Jun. 30, 2013 at 12:51pm

Keatonc333
"We both know Genesis is flawed so what do you believe happened? what explains the millions if not billions of new species that have been introduced on earth throughout the past billion years?"

How can you possible know that Genesis is flawed when you do not have that which only God gives to the human mind to understand the things of God? That being the Holy Spirit! God does not give godly knowledge to the unrepentant, unbaptized godless. And further more, what proof can you give that "millions if not billions of new species that have been introduced on earth throughout the past billion years?" Have you lived and record every species creates since the earth was created million and or billions of years ago?

What a way to insulate yourself - only Christians are right, and only Christians have the ability to know that they're right. It doesn't matter what a non-Christian says, because they lack the gift of knowledge from God.

I know that this entry is a bit rambling, but there's just so much wrong associated with Ray Comfort. I'll probably at least take a look at his movie when it comes out. Whether or not I can get through more than five minutes of it is an open question.


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