Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Recommended Reading - Religion

Religion?I've written an entire book on religion, plus a ton of other essays for this site. That's a lot to expect anybody to read, so if you want the quick introduction, this is it.


For the super quick summary, I grew up as a Christian, with a strong and sincere faith. But as I grew older and learned more about religion and the world at large, I came to realize that religion simply wasn't true, and that atheism was by far the most likely explanation of the universe. The essays below explain all of that in a lot more detail.


Introduction

For Anyone Interested in Luring Me Back Into the Fold

  • How to Convert Me Back to Christianity
    This is a list of all the issues you would have to address to get me to reconsider the validity of Christianity, and whether or not to even be a Christian if you could demonstrate that it was true.
     
  • Standards of Evidence for Religion
    This is the type of evidence that would be required to convince me of the reality of gods or religions.
     

Additional Info

I've written a lot about religion. Here are four collections.

  • My Book, online
    I tried to keep the book short enough that it wouldn't be overwhelming, but long enough to be a good, informative introduction.
     
  • Religion Archive
    Pretty much all the religious essays I've ever written for this blog.
     
  • Friday Bible Blogging Index
    This is an ongoing effort to re-read the entire Bible as an atheist. I started off pretty good, but progress has been slow for a while.
     
  • My Quora Profile
    I write a fair amount about religion on Quora, though those answers are mixed in with all my other Quora answers.
     

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Putting This Blog in Perspective

PerspectiveI wanted to expand on something I wrote a few years ago in the entry, The Misleading Image of Bloggers. If you come and visit this blog and read my entries here, I think it would be very easy to get a misleading image of what I'm like in real life, and maybe even some misunderstanding over just how strongly I really feel about certain issues.

First of all are the topics I discuss here. I write an awful lot about religion and politics on this blog, as well as skepticism in general. Those are topics that interest me, but I know they're not topics that interest everybody, and even if they did, they're not necessarily polite topics for dinner conversation. Nobody wants to be that guy that's always starting a religious or political debate every time you hang out with them. Granted, I do like to discuss these things when they come up, but I usually wait for other people to bring them up. If you happened to meet up with me on a Friday night to go grab a beer, chances are that these topics wouldn't even come up. So, this blog gives me an opportunity to write about these issues without boring my friends.

Plus, it's not like I only think about religion and politics. Like I wrote in that older entry, "Nobody except my friends and family really cares what TV shows I've been watching, what I've been eating for supper every night, the chores I did around the house last weekend, the grades my daughter makes in school, how she did at her piano recital, or many of the other things I do or talk about on a daily basis." I write about certain topics because I do think there's an audience that will like reading about them. And even if it's not a huge audience, at least it's a bigger audience than just my wife and parents, who are just about the only people that would want to hear about all my mundane day to day experiences.

Second is how I feel about the 'opposition'. I criticize religion, creationism, conservative politics, climate change denialism, etc. And while I may at times call out certain individuals holding those positions, I don't mean to imply that all people holding those positions are bad people, nor necessarily even the specific individuals I'm calling out. All people have a multitude of views on a multitude of issues, and I seriously doubt that any one person is going to agree with me on everything. So, when I criticize creationism, for example, I'm specifically criticizing just that one belief. I don't think most creationists are bad people. I think they're just mistaken about that particular issue.*

Moreover, while I criticize religion a lot and think that on balance it does more harm than good (see the previous entry, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, for plenty of examples of the harm of religion, including fire bombings and persecuting children as witches, or a recent entry, Christian Privilege, showing the undue privilege religion receives in our culture), I don't think it's universally horrible in every aspect. Religiously motivated soup kitchens and homeless shelters do good in the world. Christmas bazaars and pot lucks can foster a sense of community. People who have had traumatic experiences can often find comfort in religious beliefs.

In addition, I hold people to different standards depending on the situation. I've already written about this in the entry, Run of the Mill vs. Big Name Creationists. Most people never had evolution presented to them well in high school biology, and don't have much reason to study it, now. As I wrote previously, "It's hard to get good and pissed off at someone who believes something and hasn't ever been shown a good reason not to believe it." But when someone like Ben Carson, a respected neurosurgeon, goes and gives a presentation to the public, or participates in public debates, then I do expect him to have done enough research to understand the issue and speak about it knowledgeably. And then there are the prominent creationists / creationist organizations like Answers in Genesis, or Kent Hovind, or Ray Comfort, who I know have been exposed to credible science, yet continue to spread their falsehoods. And even though I just used creationism for my example, that's not the only issue where I look at things this way. It applies to politics, science, and a whole bunch of other fields. I get much more upset with people who should know better but continue to spread misinformation.

In real life, I have friends of all types of religious and political persuasions. I have friends ranging from fundamentalist Christians to Muslims to agnostics and atheists, from young and old earth creationists to evolutionary biologists, from die hard Trump supporters to people who are far more liberal than me, from gun rights absolutists to people who would like to see more gun control (though no one I know of who would advocate outright bans). We get along because most of the things we do on a daily basis are talk about work, or vent about personal problems, or get together for a crawfish boil, or go out to happy hour, or help each other move, or, well, all the normal stuff everybody does.

So, if you're reading this blog, and you think I'm attacking you personally, please keep in mind that that's usually not my intent. I try for the most part to be civil and criticize ideas, positions, or policies. If I've crossed the line and written something offensive, then I apologize, and I would ask you to point it out to me so that I could address it in the future.

And keep in mind that this entire blog is only a small slice of my views - the ones I think people would be interested in reading. If you ever met me in real life, even if we disagree about these issues, there's still a very good chance we could get along just fine and find common ground in other areas.

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*As a side note on that, though, I'm not so naive and idealistic as to think that everybody is always acting honorably. I've written quite a bit about Ray Comfort on this blog over the years. I know he's been exposed to the science regarding evolution, but he repeats the same falsehoods year after year. And he still uses dishonest tactics like quote mining and selective editing to make documentaries. It gets harder and harder to believe that he's not knowingly using dishonest tactics.

Image Source: Return of Kings

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Ray Comfort Index

The Atheist's Worst NightmareI've written quite a bit about Ray Comfort on this blog. In fact, he provided me with my inspiration to start the blog, back when a guy in a flea market gave me and my wife a copy of a Ray Comfort CD. The arguments Comfort used were just so bad that I had to vent about it somewhere, so I wrote my first real substantive blog entry, A Meandering Tale About Fundamentalism.

I don't normally go out of my way looking for things to criticize about Comfort. In fact, other than just now looking it up so that I could provide a link, I can't remember the last time I've visited his website, Living Waters. But from time to time I come across something he's done or said or written that I can't pass up commenting on, so I've actually ended up with quite a few entries devoted to him. So, I figured I'd create one entry with links to everything I've ever written about Comfort, and which I plan to update with new links if I ever write anything else about him.

Ray Comfort Entries, in Chronological Order

Friday, March 3, 2017

Christian Privilege

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismBrowsing Quora recently, I came across the question, Is Christian privilege real?*. The questioner stated they were in the process of reading The God Delusion and had come across this claim. But, in their view, "He speaks of religious privilege and I have done some research into it online and I still have a hard time finding where religious people are privileged. Where is this 'Privilege'?"

Now, I used to be a Christian, myself. And I never really noticed the privilege then, because I was one of the ones benefiting from it. However, once I became an atheist and a religious outsider, this privilege became painfully obvious (I suppose that's how it goes with a lot of other majority privileges).

So, for people who may be wondering just what types of privileges Christians receive, here are several examples. Some of these are personal anecdotes, while others are links to news stories. At the end of this post, I've also provided links to sources with more examples.

Public prayer is a big thing where I live in Texas. It happens at PTA meetings, Girl Scout meetings, Junior Forum meetings (yes - I have a daughter), city council meetings, Air Force holiday parties, square dances... Really, public prayer happens at just about every public meal, and more than half of organized group gatherings. And the prayers are always Christian prayers. So it's not just us atheists being subjected to prayers we don't agree with, but also all of our community's members of non-Christian religions.

Don't want to work on your religion's most important holidays? No problem if you're Christian. Christmas is a federal holiday. Easter is on a Sunday. And lots of companies actually give you Good Friday off. If you're Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or anything else, well, that's what PTO is for.

Want to send your kids to a private school? We've got five of them here in Wichita Falls. Guess how many are a religion other than some form of Christianity, or even just a secular option. If you guessed zero, congratulations.

Want to go to the only local adoption agency because you and your spouse have decided to adopt. Well, you better go to church, or no adoption for you. And yes, I have friends who were turned away from this adoption center for that very reason.

I don't go out of my way to announce my atheism, but I'm not shy about discussing it when religion comes up as a topic of conversation. So many people have been dumbfounded or shocked to find out. I've had people insist that I couldn't be a real atheist, tell me they'll pray for my soul, or wonder how in the world I could even believe that. Would anyone expect that type of reaction if you mentioned you were a Presbyterian?

On a related note, my daughter learned very early on not to mention lack of belief. At a Campfire daycamp, she merely mentioned that somebody could be good without believing in God, and was bullied by several of the other kids for it, and was practically in tears by the time we picked her up. Of course, none of the kids were ever bullied for mentioning that they believed in God. So, now that she's a bit older, she's very careful about discussing religion, or the fact that her father is an atheist.

Here's a story I ran across a few years ago - Calif. City Changes Zoning Code to Allow Home Bible Study After Couple Was Fined. The quick version is that a California city had an ordinance which barred " 'religious, fraternal or non-profit' gatherings of more than three people in residential neighborhoods without a ... permit." One couple broke that ordinance, basically running a small church out of their home, with weekly Bible studies drawing around 20 people, and a Sunday service drawing around 50. When the couple was fined for this, there was a public outcry, and the city changed the law and refunded the couple the fine. But the law wasn't changed to allow any old non-profit meetings. It specifically exempted religious gatherings from requiring a permit.

Everybody knows that just about every hotel room in the U.S. has a Bible in the nightstand, usually courtesy of Gideons (which is already an example of Christian privilege right there ). Well, in hotels run by the government, that runs counter to the Establishment Clause. So, a few years ago, the Navy decided to remove the Bibles from hotel rooms that they ran. Many Christians threw a fit. I wrote about the reaction of Ben Carson in particular, A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle. The Freedom From Religion Foundation came up with a compromise solution - having multiple religious scriptures kept at the front desk, so that any guests that requested a holy book could get one. You'd think that would have been a good solution - Nobody was being denied their religious freedom to own or carry their own holy books, Christians could still borrow Bibles if they'd forgotten to pack their own copy, while people of other religions could also borrow their holy books. Carson and many others didn't like that solution at all, and demanded that Christian Bibles be kept in the rooms. That's not just freedom, but special treatment.

Here are a few lists with more general examples:

So yes, Christian privilege is a real thing. It's just hard to see unless you're not on the receiving end.


*This entire post is adapted from my Quora answer to that original question, with some editing and reorganization.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Texas State Board of Education Takes a Small Step Backwards on Science Education

TEA LogoAs described in the Austin American Statesman article, Texas education board approves curriculum that challenges evolution, the Texas State Board of Education has approved some troubling language for the state science standards.

If you want to see for yourself the full standards, you can find them here. Here are the four subject to the current controversy:

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

You can read a detailed discussion in a report put out by the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Science Curriculum Standards: Recommendations for Dealing with Pedagogical and Scientific Problems (pdf).


The Bad

Yes, the motivation behind these standards really is to promote creationism / cast doubt on evolution. Here are a few excerpts from that TFN report regarding the motivation behind three of these:

[Regarding 7 B] In a final appeal to preserve his proposal, McLeroy stated that the purpose of his standard was to argue against: "...the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor by the unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 7 G] During the board debate, McLeroy explained that this standard: "...questions the two key parts of the great claim of evolution, which is [sic] common ancestry by unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 9 D] During board debate, Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, explained that the new standard was "basically an origin of life amendment," referencing public testimony provided previously by Ide Trotter, a well-known promoter of intelligent design."

And the history of the first one, 3A, makes it clear that this was compromise language regarding the strengths and weaknesses gambit so popular among creationists.

Moreover, the Board had actually formed an expert committee to review the standards and make recommendations on improving them, and the committee recommended removing these four particular items because "they were vague, redundant or would require too much time to teach" (quoting the Stateseman article). So, the Board is going against the advice of experts to push standards that were originally motivated by anti-science positions.


The Good

The standards aren't actually that bad. All of them could be handled by textbook publishers and teachers strictly keeping to real science, and not injecting any creationism or other pseudoscience. Let's look at them again on a case by case basis.

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

Well, it says specifically 'all sides of scientific evidence'. Creationism is manifestly not science, so this shouldn't be a backdoor for creationism. As far as real science, this is a little overwhelming for a high school biology class. I mean, all sides of the scientific evidence supporting evolution in general could be an entire class unto itself. Even 150 years ago, in The Origin of Species, Darwin had an entire tome full of evidence for evolution, and the evidence has only grown stronger and more abundant since.

Granted, there are different 'sides' within current evolutionary biology - the relative influence of genetic drift vs. natural selection, how much of the genome is truly junk DNA vs. possible other functions, etc. So, teachers could delve into these current topics, but it seems a bit of a deep dive for high school biology.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

Well, if you're sticking to real science, this is simply a discussion of gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium, and perhaps some background on taphonomy and taphonomic biases in the fossil record. And that's all a decent discussion to have, showing students the evidence in support of both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. In fact, there's evidence for both, so it's probably not an either/or discussion, but rather how they represent opposite extremes regarding the rates of speciation, and what might drive the different rates of change. Although like I said above, this is getting pretty in depth for a high school biology class.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

Well, yes, cells are complex. I remember learning about that back when I was in high school, and making a model stuffed full of organelles. And if you really want to get into the origins of the complexity, symbiogenesis is one of the topics to discuss in the origin of eukaryotes. And there's an entire field of study for abiogenesis, concerning how life first arose. But again, this might be more detailed than most people expect from high school biology.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

Lots of good stuff to discuss here, as well. I'm sure that teachers would at a minimum bring up the Miller-Urey experiment, as well as other more recent experiments that used different conditions thought to be more representative of the early earth. Teachers could start discussions on the RNA World. And of course, there's that whole field of abiogenesis that I already linked to. But like I said for each of the other questionable standards, and like the expert committee said, this is getting awfully detailed for a high school biology class that has to cover all the other standards and curriculum.

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So, it's troubling that these standards were motivated by creationist misunderstandings of science, and that the Board members went against the recommendations of experts regarding the standards. But at least the letter of the standards isn't horrible, and textbook publishers and teachers can stick to real science. I just hope teachers with creationist sympathies don't use these standards as an excuse to teach junk science.


Updated 2017-02-03: Made numerous small changes

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