Skepticism, Religion Archive

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book Update - New Edition!

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisI've published a second edition to my book, Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays ($4.99 from LuLu). To paraphrase from my own review* of the book, this book is a collection of essays I wrote during and after my 'deconversion' from Christianity. I kept it to a length that should be informative without being overwhelming (~100 pages), so it could be a good primer on non-belief. I've given copies of the first edition to several friends, all of whom have said it was interesting. Obviously, you wouldn't expect friends to tell you your book was horrible, but one of them even went out and bought 10 copies of it so that he could give it away to other people.

This second edition adds two new essays that I thought filled some holes. The first of those additions is actually a review of the book, More Than a Carpenter. It was a nice way to address many of the arguments that Christian apologists actually use. The second addition was an essay on Standards of Evidence for Religion. Since I had the opportunity, I also fixed typos and made several small revisions throughout the book, but nothing that would have merited a new edition on its own.

In all honesty, I think this is a decent book to introduce people to atheism, and I think everybody should rush out and buy a dozen copies. (Well, metaphorically rush out. You can only buy the book online from Lulu or Apple's iBooks.)

Just in case you missed the other links to purchase this book, here's one you can't miss:
Buy the Book - Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays

All of the essays in this book are available for free on this site, in my Religious Essays section, incorporating all the changes made for the second print edition. So, you can read it all for free if you want to. I just think a print copy is nice (not to mention a great gift).

*That's not as pretentious as it sounds. I was reviewing all of the books I'd read that year, and threw that one in among many.

Monday, June 17, 2013

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

Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenOne of my habits when I'm getting ready to write a blog entry is to do a quick Google search to see if anyone's written anything along the same lines, before. If I find something that's very similar to what I was intending on doing, then there's no reason for me to repeat what's already been done. Sometimes I'll change direction on what I was going to write, and sometimes I'll just table the concept entirely.

Well, in the course of googling for the entry, Birds Are Dinosaurs, I came across a blog, Across the Fruited Plain, which had an entry, Are Dinosaurs Alive Today As Birds?: Refuting Archaeopteryx as "Evidence" for Evolution. Reading through the comments, I followed a link to another of his blog entries, Refuting Fossil "Evidence" for Evolution: The Data is NOT in the Strata. Despite it not being a particularly active blog, I caught a case of SIWOTI syndrome and couldn't resist commenting. Unfortunately, those comments are held up in moderation. My guess is because the owner of the blog just isn't very active in maintaining it (he's only posted three new entries so far this year). But, the only cure for SIWOTI syndrome is to see your comments get published somewhere, so I'm putting them here. So, if you just happen to be a regular reader of Across the Fruited Plain, here are some comments relevant to posts on that site.

First, here is my comment to his article, Are Dinosaurs Alive Today As Birds?: Refuting Archaeopteryx as "Evidence" for Evolution.

I tried leaving a comment to this article a couple days ago, but it didn't go through. If it's simply held up in moderation, then I apologize for being redundant.

I have a question for you, but first some background. Ignoring evolution, most people agree that organisms can be grouped into nested hierarchies. For example, there are prokaryotes and eukaryotes, with animals being one group of eukaryote, and then vertebrates as one type of animal, and mammals as one type of vertebrate, etc, etc. So, for example, in the group we call mammals, there are animals as diverse as whales, bats, platypuses, dogs, elephants, people, etc. These are all very different animals, but share common traits that are unique to mammals, so they all get grouped as mammals. Personally, I think that evolution is the best explanation for these nested hierarchies, but maybe that's just the way that a god/gods (depending on your religion) liked to create things.

So, if you look at say, a chicken, a deinonychus, and an ornithischian dinosaur like a stegosaurus, it seems that the chicken and deinonychus have much more in common than either does with the stegosaurus. They're bipedal, have feathers, hollow bones, an air sac respiratory system, etc. And if you pick a bird like archaeopteryx, then it has even more in common with the deinonychus, right down to the sickle claw.

So my question is, ignoring evolution, would you at least classify birds as a type of dinosaur?

Next, here is my comment to his article, Refuting Fossil "Evidence" for Evolution: The Data is NOT in the Strata.

I know this is an old article, but I couldn't help commenting on it. Here are some responses to statements you made, grouped by the headings you used.

Lack of Transitional Forms Disprove Fossil Evidence for Evolution

First of all, why would you expect there to be countless fossils of every evolutionary transition? For example, the modern phylum of platyhelminthes, or flatworms, consists of thousands of species, yet there's scant fossil evidence of these organisms. If living organisms are absent from the fossil record, why would you expect all extinct organisms to be present? Fossilization is a rare event, and it's even rarer still for fossils to be exposed in a location where humans can find them.

How can you claim there are not transitional forms? What about archaeopteryx, tiktaalik roseae, pakicetus, rhodhocetus, dorudon, australopithecus? What would you expect of a transitional form?

Your understanding of punctuated equilibrium is very muddled. You've described what's known as saltationism, which simply couldn't work in sexually reproducing organisms - where would the 'hopeful monster' find a mate? Rather, punctuated equilibrium describes periods of relative stasis punctuated by periods of change rapid on a geological timescale - thousands of years rather than tens or hundreds of thousands. In reality, both punctuated equilibrium and gradualism are detectable in the fossil record.

Dating Methods

Ideally, the way dating works is to find layers of igneous rock above and below what you want to date. The igneous rock can be dated very accurately with radioisotopes (I know many young earth creationists don't trust atomic theory when it comes to radiometric dating, but this really is accurate). If no igneous layers are bracketing the sample you want to date, then you can rely on index fossils. These are species that were very abundant but only alive for only a very short time, and so only appear in limited stretches of the geologic column. In fact, these index fossils were recognized before radiometric dating, and used to establish relative ages of different layers. In modern times, there have been enough of these index species dated relative to igneous layers that you can be reasonably certain of the age of a sedimentary layer even if all you can find are the index fossils. But it's only these special index fossils that can be used to date layers, not any of the other fossils you happen to find in them.

Distinct Strata Identification

I'm not really sure what you're getting at, here. I don't know of anybody who would propose a date for a fossil based solely on finding it in limestone. As discussed above, you'd have to have at least index fossils, or ideally, igneous rock above and below the limestone layer you're looking at.

No Fossil is Conclusive Evidence for Evolution

Very true. A single fossil is not evidence. It's the pattern that emerges when you compare multiple fossils. For example, I cited a few examples above of whale evolution. Finding any one of them in isolation wouldn't be terribly strong evidence for evolution. But when you find multiple fossils like indohyus, pakicetus, ambulocetus, kutchicetus, rodhocetus, dorudon, and basilosaurus, it presents a much more cohesive picture.

The Fossil Evidence Supports the Biblical Worldwide Flood

First of all, most animal fossils are not of whole, complete animals. Most are fragmentary, the result of predation and scavenging. And the fossil record doesn't at all match what would be expected from a world wide flood. Organisms are found only in specific strata. Now, I know that some creationists like to explain this with 'hydraulic sorting', or positing that organisms got grouped by their ability to escape rising flood waters, but that doesn't match the reality of the fossil record. And that would still only be an average. Surely, if a worldwide flood had occured, some 'fast' animals would have died for various reasons before reaching higher ground. Yet there are no fossil rabbits in the cambrian, nor are there any ammonites that happened to make it to a higher strata (to pick just two examples). There are too many other problems with a global flood to list here, so I recommend googling "problems with a global flood talk origins" and reading that article.

Update 2015-02-23:My comment was finally approved on that site, and it spawned an entire debate. I also had a few follow-up posts on this site. For a summary of all the posts on this site dealing with this, take a look at Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Boy Scouts to Allow Gay Youth

Boy Scout Logo with Rainbow FlagThe headline of this article says it all, Boy Scouts to allow gay members but ban on gay and atheist leaders continues. It's a step in the right direction, at least. As an Eagle Scout myself, I can attest to how important scouting was in my life. And I've mentioned before that I think it should be open to all boys who want to participate. It's absolutely wonderful that the organization has finally decided to allow openly gay boys to join. But the BSA still has a few spots left to address - gay leaders and atheists. I hope they can address those shortcomings soon.

Image Source:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Local University Invites Creationist to Give Commencement Address

Ben CarsonThe local university here in Wichita Falls is Midwestern State University. It's a pretty good university, actually. In 2007 (I think), it was named the #1 top value in public colleges and universities by Consumers Digest (source). It's a small university at only around 6500 students, but even at that size any organization is going to have some controversies. The most recent one for MSU was when they invited Dr. Ben Carson to give the commencement speech at this year's graduation, as detailed in this Times Record News article, MSU brings polemic to graduation. This little event even got noticed nationwide, such as Jerry Coyne's website, Why Evolution Is True, in the entry, Creationist neurosurgeon speaks at yet another commencement.

Just in case you don't recognize Carson's name, there are a few reasons his presence was controversial. The one aspect that didn't get as much attention, but which strikes a personal chord with me, is his rejection of evolution and embrace of creationism. Just read this quote from an interview with the Adventist Review.

And why did evolution divert in so many directions--birds, fish, elephants, apes, humans--if there is some force evolving to the maximum? Why isn't everything a human--a superior human?

That sounds an awful lot like an old canard that I covered in the entry, Local Church Misunderstands Evolution - Why Are There Still Apes?. There is no pinnacle of evolution. Organisms are constantly evolving to fit their particular environments. Why would even expect that all animals should evolve to resemble humans?

Moving on, here's another quote from that article.

Also, there's the whole subject of irreducibly complex organisms--the idea that everything has to be there all at once for it to work. How could all the complex items evolve simultaneously--as in the eye, for example?

This is another one that I've covered before, only very briefly for this one, in the entry, Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution. If you scroll about a third of the way down that page, you'll find some pictures of eyes. One is a full on camera type eye like we humans have. The other is a cup type eye from a patella snail. Snail eyes evolved independently of vertebrate eyes, but they show a clear analog to what an ancestral vertebrate eye was probably like. There's no reason to expect that all components of an eye had to evolve simultaneously - eyes work just fine with only some of the components that we have in ours.

And finally, here's one last excerpt from that interview.

So how could our incredibly organized universe come about as the result of a big bang? This flies in the face of the second law, which says it would be less organized as a result, not more! Scientists have to be consistent.

I have a previous entry that's somewhat related to this, Creation Museum/Creationist Rule of Thumb with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. That entry was more about creationists misapplying the 2nd Law to biological evolution, but it's just as applicable to the evolution of the universe. The 2nd Law does not mean what creationists so often naively interpret it to mean. And what type of arrogance does it take to think that you could have found such a glaringly obvious problem with cosmology when there are countless well educated and intelligent scientists who have devoted their careers to it? I know, that's hinting at being an argument of authority, but I see people so often who think they know more about fields than people who are actual experts, which I discussed in another entry, The Economy & Expertise.

Carson's knowledge of evolution is abysmal. And it's not as if biology is unrelated to medicine, even if you don't need a perfect understanding of biology to be a doctor. If I were the university administration, I'd be very hesitant to invite someone as ignorant as Carson to represent my university.

But enough about evolution, since that's not really what stirred the pot in this case. No, the big problem is Carson's bigotry against homosexuals and his opposition to marriage equality. Back in March, he made some pretty odious remarks on this front.

It's a well-established, fundamental pillar of society, and no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality -- it doesn't matter what they are -- they don't get to change the definition.

Now, some people (like commenters in that TRN article above) claim that Carson never directly compared gays to NAMBLA or practitioners of bestiality. But that's a pretty weasely argument. Carson is an educated man. He could have chosen any manner of saying that he didn't think marriage should adapt to changing times. And the manner he chose was to associate homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality. I don't think this qualifies exactly as the type of propaganda known as 'poisoning the well', but it's awfully close.

For a bit of entertainment, and to hear Carson actually speak those words himself, you can watch this segment from the Daily Show below, and get John Stewart's take on it (along with his reaction to other opponents of marriage equality). Carson's bit comes near the end.

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Swing of the Hill
Daily Show Full EpisodesIndecision Political HumorThe Daily Show on Facebook

Of course, after the outrage this caused, he issued the standard apologies. Well actually, his first apology was some mangled ramble about apples, oranges, and bananas (or watch it on The Daily Show). But he later issued a more reasonable apology, as detailed in the article, Ben Carson Apologizes to Johns Hopkins Community. Still, his original comments were offensive enough that after enough public pressure, he eventually stepped down from being the commencement speaker at his own university, Johns Hopkins. And he never did back down from his bigoted position against marriage equality - he just apologized for his word choice.

So, when some faculty found out that Carson was the speaker, they approached the MSU administration. When it was clear that Carson was going to remain as the commencement speaker, they decided to stage a mini, peaceful protest. Just before Carson was to speak, eleven faculty and two students stood up and walked out, waiting outside the auditorium until Carson's speech was over.

If you read the article in that TRN article above, you'll find several commenters upset with that reaction. But to me, it seems perfectly reasonable. Carson is ignorant of the most fundamental theory of biology, and he has expressed his bigotry against homosexuals with some pretty odious remarks. Those faculty and students who disapproved of his role in the graduation ceremony didn't shout anything. They didn't hold up protest signs. They didn't cause a major ruckus. They simply walked out silently.

So, that's the latest local controversy here in Wichita Falls. It's a bit disappointing that university officials saw fit to invite someone like Carson to begin with, but it's nice to see people who disapproved enough to stage this mini protest. And the TRN article also mentioned that many faculty and students were wearing rainbow ribbons pinned to their gowns. So there's hope even deeply conservative Wichita Falls.

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Updated 2014-09-04: Adventist Review link changed to WayBack Machine.

This didn't fit anywhere else into this blog entry, so let me just add it here. MSU has a Freethought Alliance that meets regularly. I even went to a discussion they put on this past Darwin Day.

I'll also note that I found another good webpage that deals with one of the quotes I gave of Carson up above:
Afarensis - Stupid Creationist Quote of the Week: Ben Carson on Evolution

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Wichita Falls - Pray for Rain

Take a look at what's been popping up all over the city of Wichita Falls, Texas.

Pray for Rain Sign

Pray for Rain

The bottom of the sign is a reference to 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which states simply, "pray without ceasing".

Perhaps a little background information is in order. Wichita Falls has a serious problem:

U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook

Wichita Falls is located just a little to the east of the dark spot in north central Texas - not in the absolute worst of it, but still in D3 Drought. Our reservoir levels are the lowest they've been in decades, and the drought forecast doesn't look like we're getting relief any time soon.

I know that in times like this, people feel helpless and look for anything they can do to try to make things better. And there's nothing particularly horrible about these signs. There's just something about them that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it's the fact that they're everywhere, and that all the money people have been paying for signs could have gone into something more productive. Maybe it's the idea that a god would be so capricious as to cause a drought until some prayer quota's been met, at which point he'd finally send some relief. Maybe it's the fact that people in the 21st century are still doing the equivalent of a rain dance to the gods. Maybe I'm just becoming too curmudgeonly.

Oh well, live and let live. If putting up signs in their yards makes people feel better, who am I to complain too much about it.

More Info:

Image Sources: Wikimedia, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Selling Out