Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, September 12, 2008

Why Do People Have a Problem With Our Relation to Other Apes?

For some reason, one of people's biggest problems with evolution seems to be that us and the other great apes all came from the same ancestors. One of the first objections I hear from creationists is if I actually believe that we evolved from apes. And honestly, it never seemed like a big deal to me*. Here, take a look at these pictures of a bonobo and a human:

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Pascal's Wager

A discussion of Pascal's Wager seems nearly obligatory for a blog that deals with skeptical themes. So, even though others have already covered this more eloquently than I could hope for, here's my take on this argument.

Coin TossIf you're the type that gets involved at all in religious discussions (and maybe even if you aren't), you've probably heard some version of Pascal's Wager before, even if you haven't heard it referred to as such. The argument is named for Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher. It appeared in The Pensées, a post-humous publication of a collection of Pascal's notes. However, the argument is simple enough that many people have no doubt come up with it independently. So, rather than discuss Pascal's original description of the "wager," I'll discuss the version that I've heard most often, personally. (And, in defense of Pascal, I'ver heard that he never intended this argument to be concrete logical proof, but rather as a way to get people thinking about the issue).

The argument goes something like this. There either is a God, or there isn't. You either believe in God, or you don't. That gives four possible outcomes (these are usually shown in a table, but I'm just going to list them):

  1. God exists & you believe - You'll get into heaven when you die, an infinite reward.
  2. God exists & you don't believe - You'll go to hell when you die, an infinite punishment.
  3. God doesn't exist & you believe - You'll lose nothing (or, according to some, even live a better life).
  4. God doesn't exist & you don't believe - You can do whatever you want during life, a finite reward.

Presented this way, belief in God would seem to be the logical choice. However, there are definitely problems with the argument.

The first problem I'll note is the one that first occured to me when I was still a Christian - people cannot simply choose to believe in something. Take for example, leprechauns. Many people have sincerely believed in them in the past, but no matter how much I may want to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, I can't make myself believe that leprechauns actually exist. It's the same way with God. If you've given serious thought to the issue, you can't simply make yourself believe (or disbelieve) just because you'd like the outcome. To claim belief in that way would be insincere, and, according to most people's concept of Yahweh, God doesn't merely want lip service. He wants actual, sincere faith.

The second problem I see with the argument is the assumption that you'll lose nothing if you believe in God but he doesn't exist. Assuming you accept that the Bible accurately represents what Yahweh wants of us (which most Christians do), there are plenty of rules in that book. Granted, many Christians have found ways to rationalize their way out of following a good deal of them (no more dietary regulations, people can work on the Sabbath, many seem to disregard Jesus's lecture about rich people and heaven being compared to camels getting through the eye of a needle, etc.), but there are still quite a few Biblical rules that people do follow. Probably two of the most relevant right now are attitudes toward homosexuals, and attitudes toward stem cell research. The former keeps a large number of people from leading happy lives, while the latter is preventing research with the potential to greatly reduce suffering in the world. One could argue that these are finite costs, compared to the infinite cost and reward of heaven and hell, but they are still costs, nonetheless.

However, the biggest problem with Pascal's wager must be that it leaves out many other possibities. This becomes clear if you imagine the argument with Allah instead of the Christian God. The argument would then seem to indicate that you should be a Muslim. Obviously, they can't both be right. The problem is in that first statement, that either God exists or he doesn't. It's not a simple either/or choice. There are many, many gods to choose from - three versions of Yahweh (Jewish, Christian, & Muslim - not to mention all the sects of those three), Vishnu, the Bahá'í God, Krishna, the Sikh God, Ahura Mazda, Anu, Ra, Odin, Quetzalcoatl, Gukumatz, or Zeus, to name just a few of the deities people have worshipped in the past, or continue to worship in the present (and as an aside, there are many traditions, like Buddhism which don't concentrate on deities).

Also left out are the possibilities of how a god will reward or punish belief and disbelief. The Christian conception of God will reward faith and punish doubt, but with all the possibilities of gods, the other deities may have different ideas. It's conceivable that a god would reward honest inquiry, and punish blind faith, favoring the process over the end result.

Even though Pascal's wager may appear clever at first blush, it's unlikely to convince people who have given much thought to the question of the existence of a deity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Another Ray Comfort Tract

Going into the grocery store this past Friday, a lady standing by the door handed me this (click for higher res):

Million Dollar Bill Tract

This is similar to the tract I blogged about before, which I found in some Harry Potter and Golden Compass books (on another occasion, I found a tract in The God Delusion), but apparently, it's a newer, "better" version.

I was half tempted to start a discussion with the lady, but I was in a hurry to pick up a few things and then get home for my daughter's birthday party. Obviously, my daughter takes precedence over street corner debates, so I just chuckled to myself, put the tract in my pocket, and contented myself with knowing I'd be able to blog about it. There's not really much to say about the tract itself, though. It's pretty much the same old thing that's come from Comfort's organization before.

This incident did get me thinking, though. There needs to be some type of quick, easy handout to give to these people, as a kind of reciprocal gift to the tracts they're handing out. I found this, but that's a full brochure. It's not the type of thing I'd carry around in my back pocket, just in case I run into that pushy evangelical. There needs to be something business card sized, short and clear to get them thinking, without being obnoxious or mocking.

As an aside, I'd always given Ray Comfort the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was sincere, but just ignorant of science (and a few other things). I just found an entry on another blog that isn't quite so charitable.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ask and Ye Shall Receive - A Dubious Left Wing E-mail

Turtle Eating Plastic BagI recently wrote an entry about a phenomenon I'd noticed - "that the vast, vast majority of dubious politically related e-mails I've received are from the right side of the spectrum." I went on to point out that, "In fact, I can't recall a single chain e-mail I've received personally that has denigrated Republicans, social conservatives, or the religious right. But I've received plenty that criticize or demonize their opponents, almost always by either stretching the truth or by outright fabrication."

Well, I've finally received a dubious left wing e-mail. It contained a PowerPoint attachment titled The Dangers of Plastic Bags, which uses some questionable "facts." I converted that to a .pdf, which can be downloaded through the link below:
The Dangers of Plastic Bags (pdf - 1.52 MB).

I'm busy this week with trying to make a new page for my main site, so I won't devote a lot of effort into debunking the claims in that presentation, at least not yet. Hopefully I'll have a chance to follow up on this in the future. Instead, I'll link to a rebuttal from an admittedly biased source, the Plastics Industry Trade Association. Again, this is a .pdf:
Progressive Bag Alliance - Top 10 Myths About Plastic Grocery Bags (pdf - 45.6 kB)

I agree with the general sentiment of the e-mail forward. Plastic bags last a long time without breaking down, are hazardous to wildlife, and it seems that they're being found in just about every habitat on Earth. It would be much better for the environment if we reduced the amount of plastic bags we used. Just buying a couple things from the store? Carry them out without a bag. Wanna be a real tree hugger? Take a reuseable canvas bag. But it does your cause no good try to further your agenda through misinformation. People will think you're a liar, or at best unreliable, and doubt the rest of the information you're providing.

Okay, so for the five years I've been living in Texas (I'm not going to try to remember farther back than that), I've received a grand total of 1 dubious left wing e-mail, and more dubious right wing e-mails than I care to count. I'd sure like to see the totals get reduced to zero for both sides of the political spectrum.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Another Surprise at the Bookstore

I wrote an entry a while ago, about finding some religious inserts in Lyra's Oxford, a short book written by Phillip Pullman as a kind of mini sequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy, as well as a few other children's books. Just recently, on the advice of several people (including Eric of the New Minority blog), I finally decided to purchase The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins' book on religion. (I'm already most of the way through it, and hope to put up a review some time within the next couple months. In short, I agree with most, though not all, of what Dawkins has written.) Just about the time I was halfway through the book, a little card fell out into my lap:

Living Waters IQ Test - Front of Card
Living Waters IQ Test - Back of Card

The card was printed by the same organization, Living Waters Ministries, headed by the same person, Ray Comfort, as the cards I found in Lyra's Oxford and the other books I mentioned in that entry (man, that took some restraint on my part not to use a different noun to describe Comfort). Given Dawkins' subject material, I wasn't nearly as surprised this time as when I found the inserts in the children's books, and this insert isn't nearly as disengenious. Still, it seems we have a misguided busybody at our local bookstore. Plus, it's always a bit unpleasant to be reminded of the inventor of the argumentum ad bananum.

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