Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, August 20, 2010

Website Update - New Factoids Page

Factoids?Well, I've pretty much abandoned my old goal of updating the static pages at least once per month. My blog has really taken over as the main source of new content for this site. Still, some content I want to publish still belongs with the static pages, and I've just put up something new - another factoid page, Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part V. This one deals mostly with geography. It's a fairly even mix of truth and falsehoods.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Proposition 8

Defend EqualityI've been browsing through the comment thread over on Bad Astronomy in the post on Prop 8. Aside from the religious and bigoted arguments, one of the most prevalent I've seen from opponents to marriage rights is that this goes against democracy - the people voted, and now a judge has overturned it. One person even called it 'unconstitutional'. I've got to wonder - do these people even know how our government works? To spell it out for them, we have legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Legislative legislates laws. Executive executes laws. And judicial judges laws. I know - pretty complicated. So, when a law gets passed, even if it's voted on by the people, higher courts can determine whether the law itself is unconstitutional. It's part of that whole balance of powers thing. Now, if you don't like the Constitution, you can pass ammendments to have it changed, but I kind of like the idea that the Constitution limits the authority of government.

To tell the truth, though, I just can't think of any good reason why gay marriage shouldn't be allowed. I've already written about this extensivey (while I was still a Christian, no less). Although I have slightly different views now (without using the Bible as a basis for morality, I no longer see any problem at all with homosexuality), I don't think it would be worth writing something new on this, so I'll just link to those previous essays I've written on the issue.

Legality of Homosexual Marriage, Part I
Legality of Homosexual Marriage, Part II

I included this link in that second entry, but it's definitely worth pointing out here.
10 Reasons Why Gay Marriage is Wrong (Satirical)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review - The Year of Living Biblically


The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was written by A.J. Jacobs. As the name suggests, for a year, he attempted to live his life by following the Bible literally, from observing the Sabbath, to not wearing mixed fiber clothes, to stoning an adulterer (he threw a pebble), to all the other myriad rules. The first 3/4 of the year were dedicated to just the Old Testament, since Jacobs is (nominally) Jewish (he described himself as "Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: not very."), and the latter part of the year to adding in the New Testament rules.

In the following paragraphs, I'll discuss quite a few things from the book where I disagree with Jacobs, but don't let that bias you from reading the book. This is a blog, so it's my duty to disagree and be vocal about it, so I've focused on the areas of the book that I disagree with the most. But overall, the book is very good, and very thoughtful.

Jacobs did seek advisors in his quest, people to help him understand the meaning of different passages. He explained in several parts what some of the more traditional, non-literal interpretations were of different passages (which, of course, he didn't follow, since his quest was to follow a literal interpretation). He also explained how people got around some the contradictions in the Bible, and a bit of the rationale many Christians use for no longer following Old Testament rules. It wasn't simply one long running joke about how silly Biblical literalism is - it was in many ways a sincere attempt to understand Judaism and Christianity.

I do question Jacobs' motivation somewhat. Consider this passage from when he went to Jerusalem.

As I wander over to a café near the hotel for a bagel, I realize something: Walking around Jerusalem in my bilbical persona is at once freeing and vaguely disappointing. In New York - even though it's home to the Naked Cowboy and gene Shalit - I'm still unusual enough to stand out. But in Israel I'm just one of the messianic crowd. A guy with strange outfits and eccentric facial hair? Big deal. Seen three dozen today. Jerusalem is like the Galápagos Islands of religion - you can't open your eyes without spotting an exotic creature.

It seems as if Jacobs relished in the attention he was getting, so I think that vanity might have had a bit to do with his quest, and not just attempting to understand the religious mindset.


There's almost always a church youth group at the soup kitchen. I have yet to see an atheists' youth group. Yeah, I know, religious people don't have a monopoly on doing good. I'm sure that there are many agnostics and atheists out there slinging mashed potatoes at other soup kitchens. I know the world is full of selfless secular groups like Doctors without Borders.

But I've got to say: It's a lot easier to do good if you put your faith in a book that requires you to do good.

Jacobs included the appropriate disclaimer, but doesn't seem to have really given it the weight it deserved. Us atheists and agnostics don't form atheist/agnostic charity groups because it's a bit superfluous. If you want to help feed people, you don't start an atheist soup kitchen, or an agnostic food drive. You start a plain old soup kitchen, or a plain old food drive. Or, more often, you go volunteer at one of the the charities that's already been founded.

As far as youth groups, hasn't Jacobs ever heard of the Scouts or Campfire? I know, technically Boy Scouts have to be religious, but it's mostly a secular organizations, with little focus on religion. I know that as a kid I did a lot more charity work with my Boy Scout troop than with my church youth group. My daughter is in Girl Scouts, which in their policy officially declares the organization to be secular ("Our movement is secular and is founded on American democratic principles, one of which is freedom of religion.") My daughter has done quite a bit of volunteer work through Girl Scouts.

As another anecdote, my wife and I volunteered a few times to go on a medical mission trip to Guatemala. And I'd say that 1/4 to 1/3 of the volunteers were non-believers, which is about what you'd expect if Christians and non-believers were helping equally (actually, us atheists were over represented compared to the general population, but that's not all that unexpected for such a small group size).

Jacobs can say that it seems easier to do good if you put faith in the Bible, but I'm not sure that reality agrees with him.


At one point, he described his reaction to attending an atheist meeting.

Ken has, in fact, boosted the group's membership and started some programs. But go to an atheist meeting, and you'll see why the religious lobby doesn't have to worry about the atheist lobby quite yet. You'll see why there are no soaring atheist cathedrals and why hotel room night stands don't come with a copy of Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell in the top drawer. It's hard to be passionate about a lack of belief.

Well, yeah. The only reason why atheists are so vocal is because of the pernicious influence of religion in our society. As soon as religion stops being such a problem (i.e. outlawing homosexual marriage, trying to get creationism taught in schools, the de facto requirement that political candidates are religious, etc.), we atheists won't have so much to complain about. Like Thomas Jefferson said, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Now that I'm an atheist myself, I have no desire to go to a building just to celebrate my non-belief. I'd rather be productive. I like going to museums to learn more about the world, going to parties to enjoy time with my friends, going to my daughters school pageants. It seems silly to even think about atheist cathedrals.


In another section, he described his aunt and uncle becoming religious for the benefit it would give their children, and contemplated it for himself.

They explored several religions, including Hinduism, but ended up diving into Orthodox Judaism, since they were born Jewish.

They didn't become ultrareligious because of a charismatic leader or the truth of the Bible - they did it for the structure. And now their kids have grown up into responsible young adults...

Would I rather have Bart Simpson or one of the Flanders kids? A couple of years ago, I would have chosen the loveably spunky Bart. No question. But nowadays, now that I have my own three-dimensional son, I'm leaning toward the Flanders progeny. Yes, they may be a little creepy, they may sing loud songs about Noah's ark, but at least you know they won't spend their free time burning down the cafeteria or skateboarding off a canyon. I'd sacrifice some individuality for the knowledge that my son will outlive me.

Perhaps it's because I place such high value on truth and honesty, but this is one of the reasons I hate most for being religious. If you think God is real, and you believe all the consequences spelled out in the Bible, then it makes perfect sense to go to church and raise your children in that environment. But if you don't believe, why would you raise your kids to believe in falsehoods? It's such an intellectually dishonest position.

Besides, this is a false dichotomy. Not being religious doesn't mean behaving like Bart Simpson. You can raise your children to think about other people, and think about the consequences of their actions, without ever bringing up religion.


Attempting to follow all the rules of the Bible includes the first commandment. Jacobs tried to pray to God, which is understandably difficult for an agnostic. He had varying levels of success, depending on the day. In one passage discussing his prayer, Jacobs made a very good point.

I even find myself being skeptical of those times when my heart was near to God in the last few months. Perhaps it was an illusion. If I prayed to Apollo every day, would I start to feel a connection to Apollo?

This is a line of reasoning that I don't think enough people explore. I noticed it especially the last time I went to a mass - how much reinforcement there was to continue believing, and how hard it would be to break that cycle when you do it every week.


At the back of the book, there was an interview with Jacobs. I'm assuming that this interview was only in the paperback edition, and not the hardcover.

It was a life-changing and perspective-changing year. In the end, I became what a minister friend of mine calls a "reverent agnostic," which is a phrase I love. Because whether or not there's a God, I believe in the idea of sacredness - that rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred, and there's great importance to them. So I'm still agnostic, but a deeply different kind of agnostic.

In some ways, I can appreciate this view. The universe is an awesome place, and we're such tiny parts of it. There are a great many things that inspire me, or fill me with a sense of reverence. However, you have to be careful when it comes to 'sacredness'. Too often, when people put something in the category of the sacred, it becomes beyond reproach, above criticism, unassailable. Nothing deserves that level of immunity, because it's possible that we could be wrong about anything.

It also risks taking those concepts to extremes. Jacobs may consider the Sabbath sacred, but others have taken it so far to where they worry about whether or not they can flip a light switch, and whether the spark that might happen should be considered lighting a fire.


As for lessons I learned, perhaps the biggest was 'Thou shalt not stereotype.' Every preconception I had was smashed when I actually spent time with these groups. I had some very narrow notions about evangelical Christians before the year. But I found it's such a varied movement that you can't make a sweeping gneralization about it. For instance, I met an evangelical group called the Red Letter Christians. Instead of focusing on, for instance, homosexuality, the Red Letter Christians stress the literal words of Jesus and his teachings on compassion and peace.

This is a very good lesson, I think, for two reasons. First, taking Jacobs at his word, it shows the dangers of stereotyping. I have friends with all different types of religious beliefs, from atheists like myself to young earth creationists. People can get so caught up in religion that they forget that it's just one aspect of our lives. There's so much more that we do, that defines who we are, that it's easy to get along with someone while still disagreeing over religion.

On a more cynical side, though, Jacobs' observation reveals how people who do bad things aren't the evil villains of comic books. He discussed his visit with Jerry Falwell, and how friendly the man was in person, and how mundane the church service was. But don't forget that Falwell founded Liberty University, and co-founded the Moral Majority. The people in those organizations may have good intentions, but look at all the harm they've caused. To quote a religiously themed cliche, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."


Q: Are you going to raise your sons differently?
AJ: After the year, my wife and I decided to join a synagogue in our neighborhood. Granted, it's a reform temple and we don't go very often. (But I do pay the annual fees. Which, from the letters they send, is a very important part). We're going to send our sons to Hebrew school. I don't care whether they become Hitchens-like atheists or believers. As long as they're good people, I'll be happy. But I thought it was a good idea to give them a basis in religion, so they'll know what they're accepting or rejecting.

I already discussed above why I don't think you should raise your children to be religious if you're not a believer yourself. It's dishonest. But that's not exactly what Jacobs is saying here. It sounds like he's trying to expose his children to religion so that they can make their own choice. But, as I'm sure is glaringly obvious to anybody reading what he wrote who isn't Jewish, he's given them a pretty limited view on religion by sending them to a Hebrew school. Why not send them to Catholic school, or a Protestant school, or a Hindu temple, or a madrasah? That's one of the problems I've noticed with many people. When they say they want to expose their children to religion so that their children can have their own choice, those people usually mean their own religion, or the religion of their ancestors if they're no longer particularly religious themselves. It's hardly ever meant to expose them to the full spectrum of religious views.

On the other hand, given how important religion is in contemporary society, it's probably not such a bad idea to expose children to it in some form, so that they'll have some type of understanding of that mindset.


So, after the whole year was over, what was Jacobs' conclusion on following the Bible literally?

Q: How did it change your view on religion? AJ: In several ways, I feel I better understand some of the great things about religion and have incorporated many of them into my life. I also learned that interpreting the Bible too literally can be dangerous. I learned that you can't follow every single rule in the Bible. There is a certain amount of picking and choosing. And fundamentalists call this cafeteria religion and they mean it as an insult. But I say: What's wrong with cafeterias? I've had some delicious meals at cafeterias. It's all about choosing the right parts of the Bible, the ones about compassion and helping your neighbor. I also learned that even the rules that seem crazy at first can have a deeper meaning.

So, after actually reading the entire Bible, and trying his best to follow it literally, he concluded that it just wasn't possible. I don't think that's much of a surprise to anyone else that's actually read the Bible.

His approach of picking the best parts sounds reasonable to anyone who's not religious themselves, but it kind of removes the whole authority of the Bible, doesn't it? Especially considering how he's contemplated using the Bible as a rulebook for his kids so that they grow up with some structure - how can you justify using it as an authoritative source when you throw out all the rules you don't like?

Anyway, as I said at the beginning of this review, I've focused on the parts of the book that I disagree with the most. Overall, it's an interesting look at just what it takes to follow the Bible literally, along with some thoughtful discussion on religion in general.


Further Reading:


2010-08-03 Made a few minor changes to wording that don't significantly affect the meaning, and corrected a typo in a quote from the book.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Difference Between ID Proponents and Theistic Evolutionists

For lack of time, I'm once again going to recycle my comments from a comment thread on another site for this week's blog entry.

Some of the more extreme atheists whose writings I've read seem to want to lump those that accept theistic evolution into the same group as those that accept Intelligent Design (ID). In a very broad sense, I can understand the reasoning, but I think there is an important distinction between the two concepts. Here is the first of two comments I left in a thread discussing this issue.

I know I'm late to the party (I was on vacation), but I'll have to agree with the posters who've said that theistic evolution is not nearly the same thing as intelligent design. I know ID advocates are usually pretty vague on what ID actually entails, and it's a big tent, but here are a couple quotes from Of Pandas and People, the ID textbook that was going to be used in Dover (this is recycled from another comment thread [discussed on this site here]).

First, in discussing tetrapod evolution on page 22, the book said:

Instead, fossil types are fully formed and functional when they first appear in the fossil record. For example, we don't find creatures that are partly fish and partly something else, leading gradually, in the dozens of characteristics which they exhibit, to today's fish. Instead, fish have all the characteristics of today's fish from the earliest known fish fossils, reptiles in the record have all the characteristics of present-day reptiles, and so on.

In discussing the incompleteness of the fossil record on page 25, the book said:

There is, however, another possibility science leaves open to us, one based on sound inferences from the experience of our senses. It is the possibility that an intelligent cause made fully-formed and functional creatures, which later left their traces in the rocks.

That's quite a bit different from theistic evolution, where people believe that evolution occurs just like it really does, but that God's nudged the process somehow.

As others have pointed out, it's hard for a theist to accept evolution and not believe in theistic evolution. It's like the old joke of the guy caught in a flood on his roof. Most theists see God being involved in everything, so it's no surprise that they think he was involved in evolution, as well, even if they don't have an explanation for the exact mechanism. As long as theistic teachers stick to the secular explanations of topics in school, I don't see it as a huge problem.

After a couple people posted comments disagreeing with me, I posted another comment.

SteveM,

You're right. There is a possibility that somebody could be a deist. But honestly, how many deists are there in this country? Most people who have been indoctrinated into Christianity believe in an active god who intervenes in the universe.


JacobCH,

Theistic evolution is not functionally the same thing as ID. As I pointed out with the quotes above, and as most people already know, ID is little more than creationism that refuses to unambiguously state that God is the creator. It's a tactic to get creationism taught in schools. Theistic evolution is for people who have been indoctrinated into believing in an interventionist god, but who are rational enough to recognize that evolution must have happened.

Look at it this way, to an ID advocate, if you take away the 'designer', evolution is impossible. The designer has to be there to poof irreducibly complex systems into existence, or add specified complexity, or whatever other gobbledygook they come up with. To someone who accepts theistic evolution, if you take away the god, evolution continues to happen. It's just that without the god's guidance, evolution may not have resulted in the organisms we have now, particularly humans. Yes, the god is superfluous in that case, but that's what theistic evolution is. Whereas ID tries to force the evidence to fit God, theistic evolution tries to force God to fit the evidence.

I agree that if you just drop God it makes the whole thing easier, but that indoctrination can be really hard to get past.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Request for Recommended Creationist Literature

Adam & Eve with Some PterosaursI know I don't have many regular readers, but I get a few passers by. So, I figured I'd post a strange request:

Please recommend to me the most convincing creationist book or other resource to read.

I'll be honest. I really, really doubt that creationism is correct (I put it on the same level as flat earthers), and I doubt that I will be convinced. I've followed the debate on Internet forums quite a bit, and I'm well familiar with the standard creationist canards. However, in the interests of being open minded, I figured I ought to give creationism its best chance, and go check out whatever is recommended as the best source to convince me that it's true.

I've already wasted time on two creationist sources - the book, God: Or Gorilla (which was written back in the '20s, so I'll give creationists the benefit of the doubt and assume that they've come up with better arguments by now), and the 'documentary', Expelled (which was little more than propaganda). Neither was very convincing at all. While God: Or Gorilla was somewhat entertaining, Expelled pissed me off with its exploitation of the memory of Holocaust victims. So, I don't want to just go off willy nilly reading creationist material if it's going to be as bad as those two sources, which is the reason for this request.

I'd really prefer if the resource was a book, since it gives me a clear goal of what to read. Websites are rather nebulous. And please don't be a smart alec and recommend Genesis. First of all, I've already read it plenty of times, so it won't be anything new. But mainly, I'm looking for some actual evidence.

Leave any recommendations in the comments. Since I get so little traffic, I'll leave this thread open for a while before I go out and buy any books.


2010-08-06: A friend of mine who's a creationist has recommended Thousands, Not Billions: Challenging the Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth. If I don't get any comments here within the next couple weeks recommending anything else, that's the book I'm going to read. It will be quite a change of pace considering the book I'm currently reading - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution.

2010-11-30 I went and ordered the book a couple months ago, read it, and came up with my review. To summarize, the book didn't convince me that creationism was valid. If you want to read why, go take a look at the review, in two parts:

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